Perhaps you’ve heard tales from the Dark Side of genetic engineering. Let me guess: evil scientists tinkering with genetics for nefarious purposes, mutant slime escaping the lab, maybe even a zombie outbreak or two. Genetic engineering has certainly garnered a risky reputation. And there indeed exist real scenarios where it has gone awry: The string of lawsuits following agricultural giant Monsanto has made headlines over the years, while the scandal surrounding the genetically edited babies born in China last November is still quite fresh.
But that isn’t the whole story.
Like any powerful Force, there are those who would wield it with dark intent, but there are others out there who strive to develop the power for good. Though hacking organisms and rearranging genomes may sound scary, there is definitely a Light Side to this narrative (a balance, if you will). From medicines to biofuels and everything in between, there is incredible potential for cleverly redesigned biology to help us take on some of our world’s most pressing challenges in sustainability.
A need for sustainably sourced materials
By and large, humans struggle to maintain a sustainable relationship with our planet. We all need stuff, and stuff takes resources. If we run out of resources in one environment, we try to find another environment that can continue to supply us with the resources we need — a cleaner lake, a deeper forest, a greener pasture. But when we consume resources faster than they can regenerate, we disrupt natural cycles, some of which have undergone intricate, evolutionary optimization since our days as primordial ooze. Unfortunately, we are now seeing the harmful effects of our acyclic behavioral patterns on a global scale as our beautiful ecosystems — our coral reefs, rain forests, polar ice caps — deteriorate before our eyes.
To overcome this unsustainable use of resources, we either need to generally consume less stuff or, more likely, shift the way we acquire our everyday materials to be more cyclical. Many materials in our lives actually come from biological sources, like the flavors and spices we add to our food and the fragrances we find in our perfumes and candles. But let’s not forget the molecules we find in plants for medicines, the silk…