The Earth BioGenome Project (and Some Questions it Raises)

This week I want to take a look at the Earth Biogenome Project, and pass on some comments that I heard at a recent conference.

The Earth Biogenome Project aims to sequence the DNA of all life on Earth in the coming ten years in order to benefit human welfare, protect biodiversity and help in understanding ecosystems.

The following comes from the project press release from its launch:

An international consortium of scientists is proposing what is arguably the most ambitious project in the history of biology: sequencing the DNA of all known eukaryotic species on Earth. 

The benefits of the monumental initiative promise to be a complete transformation of the scientific understanding of life on Earth and a vital new resource for global innovations in medicine, agriculture, conservation, technology and genomics.

The central goal of the Earth BioGenome Project is to understand the evolution and organization of life on our planet by sequencing and functionally annotating the genomes of 1.5 million known species of eukaryotes, a massive group that includes plants, animals, fungi and other organisms whose cells have a nucleus that houses their chromosomal DNA. To date, the genomes of less than 0.2 percent of eukaryotic species have been sequenced. 

The project also seeks to reveal some of the estimated 10 million to 15 million unknown species of eukaryotes, most of which are single cell organisms, insects and small animals in the oceans. The genomic data will be a freely available resource for scientific discovery and the resulting benefits shared with countries and indigenous communities where biodiversity is sourced. Researchers estimate the proposed initiative will take 10 years and cost approximately $4.7 billion.  

What and Undertaking! And what promise!

As regular readers will know, my interest in technology is focused on ethics, and such a project raises a few questions that I would like to leave you with (as raised by Tess Doezema in her recent presentation at the European Biotechnology in Society Seminar.

  1. Ethical guidelines and frameworks for research into humans are generally based on the idea of informed consent: the researcher informs the participants about the implications of the research and the participants accept the possible outcomes. This model is difficult to apply however to other natural objects (such as animals). What should guidelines look like?
  2. The aim of the project seems to be preserving species. The website shows lots of statistics related to how many types of animal have become and will become extinct in the near future, leading me to conclude that de-extinction plays a role in the project. But that is problematic in itself. It raises the question of whether conservation practices will be improved or lessened, after all if we can bring an extinct animal back to life maybe we will not work as hard to save it!
  3. What are the implications for creating a global market for the DNA of all living things?

I look forward to comments and suggestions.

A Look at the Green Labs NL Project

Last week I raised a few questions about the kind of futures are envisaged for the planet from a rather argumentative standpoint: what will the political implication be if we take the technological fix approach to defending the climate?

Today I want to cast some light on a project that is asking another related question: what are the environmental consequences of actually carrying out scientific research?

This question moves beyond the idea that science and technological development might be able to help in reaching predetermined environmental standards (think about the Paris accord) or aims (UN Sustainable Development Goals) as it questions the research practices that might lead to this.

How can scientists make their research greener?

A small group of scientists in the Netherlands aim to investigate this question. They call themselves Green Labs NL.

From the website:

Green labs NL was started in 2021 by a few members of the Dutch Scientific Community who realized they shared a passion for making their science more sustainable.

The group aim to build a wider community in The Netherlands to help encourage individual scientists, lab groups and whole institutes to go greener when it comes to how we use our lab spaces, and the way we do science. The platform can aid by sharing resources and information, but also by bringing other like-minded scientists together.

It is run by scientists, and is fully non-profit. There is no CEO, CSO, … It is kept alive by the scientific community! 

This small team of scientists (4 people) have launched a really interesting blog and just held their first online Green Labs NL network meeting (in English).  The website also hosts a forum and a useful links section, one of which leads to Harvard University’s Green Labs website, so they are not alone in this movement.

This is an exciting development and I will certainly follow their work, and hope that some of our Technology Bloggers readers might do the same.

Green, Environmentally Friendly Economic Growth

Green Growth Through Technology

I have been following the European Biotechnology Seminar series 2021, an online University run series of 20 minute presentations that take in lots of different aspects of technology.

It’s the second series (here for a review of the first) and really interesting.

Yesterday we got into a discussion about the problems of what we might like to think of as intelligent sustainable growth, the use of technology to reduce emissions and help to improve the health of the planet while also producing economic growth.

The talk was about evaluating sustainability. This is not an easy thing to do in reality, as there are lots of factors that we might like to include, an endless number of factors are really possible, depending on your point of view.

CO2 output, water use, pollution of the land, use of space, just to think about environmental issues. But sustainability also involves social sustainability, and economic. If we close all the factories down then half of the problem will be resolved. But is that socially or economically sustainable?

So we find ourselves having to make decisions about what we are going to address, weight the various aspects of interest and then try to compare one approach with another.

This brought in a discussion about framing the future. Any presentation that we see about addressing climate change today makes proposals, the world will be intelligent, connected and electric. If we frame the future as this, we should understand that we are not only making a proposal, but also excluding other paths. Once electric transport is promoted as the future for transport, others fall by the wayside and what we get is a future of electric transport.

The green growth model (technological solutions) also brings other things into play that are not so broadly discussed: the manufacturing of all of this technology requires raw materials, and a large percentage of those that we use today lie in developing nations.

Lithium Mining

Namibia and Zimbabwe are two of the world’s largest lithium producers today. Chile, China and Australia are the biggest by far in terms of production, the USA for deposits, while the largest mining companies are multinationals, with extraction processes spread across the world. And thanks to its use in batteries this is a growth industry, with current production expected to double by 2024!

The largest project in Zimbabwe appears to be Chinese owned and run (Sinomine), While the largest in Namibia is Canadian.

All of which brings back thoughts of my sociology studies and the start of the mining exploitation by the Belgians and French in Africa. They called in colonialism in those days, taking raw materials from a third country to feed the ruling nation’s economy. The reality also includes polluting other people’s back yards, cheap life and labour.

Any Suggestions?

I am not suggesting that the battery/electric transport future should not go ahead, far from it. Regular readers will have seen lots of my posts about environmentally friendly, energy saving and producing technology, but there are more complications to the model that we like to think about.

Sitting in Europe it is easy to take the technological path without fully working through the consequences for other peoples and global politics. Fed the narrative of doing the right thing for the Earth, always trying to do what is best, but without a full picture of the implications, we (I too) fall into line within the narrative, we drive it and make both the positive and the negative sides real.