The folks who've got their panties in a twist over GMO - which generally involves the modification of but one gene - are in for a shock, because the hot new concept involves the application of engineering to biology. Forget about splicing in a few DNA sequences to modify one gene in a plant to make it less dependent upon pesticide applications; thousands of folks today are working on complete genetic reprogramming, and in some cases, coding new genomes entirely from scratch.
They call it Synthetic Biology - at least for now - and the GMO paranoics are going to have a natural, organic cow. The field's growing like, well, a weed; so fast, in fact, that no US agencies actually seem to have any jurisdiction.
In Boston, scientists and students will showcase so called “synbio” projects developed over the summer, including systems ranging from new takes on natural wonders, like the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to a useful form (nitrogen fixation), to newly imagined functions, like an odorless E. coli cell meant to crank out a lemony, edible “wonder protein” containing essential amino acids.
Yes, there's a big conference slated in Boston this fall, devoted entirely to a subject that nobody's heard about on the streets. Some folks are already concerned that such bioengineering will ultimately come back to stab us in our collective rumps by forcing the development of new, more dangerous bugs - much as occurred with the over-use of antibiotics. Others worry that we'll end up with ever more potent frankenfoods that will turn humans into tomato-headed mutants, like what happened with regular GMO crops (oh, wait; that didn't happen. But it could).
On the other hand, there are a number of potential benefits.
Much of the anticipated activity centers on pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tools, chemicals, and energy products, such as biofuels. But in the face of energy and water constraints, a squeeze on cultivable land, and an imperative to limit greenhouse gas emissions, synbio could also transform the way we farm and eat.
Of course, there are other aspects, such as increasing our overall understanding of biological processes in ways that might actually help to fight pathogens and pests. Other aspects are just plain silly, like the company that recently garnered nearly half a million dollars in a Kickstarter campaign to develop "sustainable natural lighting" by integrating firefly DNA with that of a small flowering plant, creating glowing plants.
But considering the effect of agriculture, which after all is where most of our food comes from, bioengineered crops hold great potential: plants that are drought-resistant, pest-resistant, require no fertilizers and far less water; these are developments that stand to preserve the environment, both terrestrial and aquatic. Yes, at the moment, the anti-GMO crowd is stoking fear, but it's ultimately a losing battle. For all their yammering about "natural", farms are actually among the least "natural" places on the planet, and every food that people eat is, at base, a genetically modified organism.
It doesn't really matter whether that modification is achieved through trial and error crossbreeding; as one researcher notes: DNA is DNA. What matters to a gene is sequence, not how you made it.