Synthetic Biology to help Carbon Footprint in Food Production
The effects of climate change are evident in multiple areas. Even the most skeptical cannot deny the great evidence of global warming, such as coral bleaching – which means a mass death of thousands of benthic organisms such as polyps, which are indispensable for the balance of an ecosystem as complex as the marine one. This increase in temperature, although marginal for now, is enough to make oxygen less soluble in the water, which prevents thousands of aquatic organisms from being able to access it and breathe. This includes microscopic photosynthetic organisms such as dinoflagellates or diatoms, living things that are indispensable to sustain the life of aerobic organisms – more than half of the oxygen is currently produced by these small individuals.
Bearing in mind that the above example is just that; a lethal example dependent on a fine biological balance, and that there are thousands of equally momentous circumstances that are changing the paradigm we currently enjoy in the biosphere, it is not surprising that attempts are being made to use biotechnology to try to correct the exponential abuse of resources that we humans have perpetrated mainly since the first industrial revolution.
Can living beings modify the climate of a planet?
The regulation of the thermal, chemical and biological cycles that enable life on earth itself is regulated by the biosphere itself. This would explain why in other celestial bodies of the solar system there is no apparent life, or if there was, it must have been simple. This is known as the Gaia hypothesis, although the scientists who defend it have a vision of the Earth as a functioning organism. The fact is that everything seems to indicate that not only did we need to start with certain friendly conditions to establish self-perpetuating chemical systems – cells – but that the first forms of life had to transform the environment of the entire planet before biodiversity exploded.
Specifically, before the first cells emerged, there was no oxygen and CO2 was plentiful, when gradually the planet cooled and reached the dew point, precipitating the oceans from the atmosphere. This allowed the atmospheric CO2 to be dissolved in the ocean – a water mass that still thermoregulates the climate and assimilates most of the carbon emitted – making it usable for possible microorganisms. And, indeed, this is how it happened. The photosynthetic mechanism appeared, bringing about a profound revolution in our world. The photolysis of water and the assimilation of carbon produced oxygen that was released into the environment, and this was the key to the appearance of multicellular organisms that needed this energy from redox reactions to diffuse to their cells. Many evolutionary events occurred, among them glaciations, extinctions due to the increase of ocean acidity, Milankovitch cycles… but life is still here, diverse and successful, for now.
The current climate change is a fact. Whether the cause of current climate change is man-made or cyclical is another matter. Of course, what is absurd to think is that the pollution and contamination that we have been quantifying exponentially in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution has nothing to do with us. In fact, according to the Gaia hypothesis itself, being part of the biosphere, we contribute to evolution by transforming the environment. This transformation does not have to be clearly bad, even if historically it has resulted in mass extinctions. Here is the ethical dilemma: nature may want us extinct, but this is the first time that a species has the capacity to change its way of life and adapt it to prevent future catastrophes. I am talking about the fact that technological evolution could have surpassed natural evolution, in more ways than one.
What can biotechnology do to stop climate change?
If biological evolution itself has been able to establish such complex and effective feedback mechanisms, how can science, being an extension of nature itself, not do so? There are multiple technologies that are currently trying to achieve Co2 capture by improving metabolic processes of existing organisms or by creating new processes. These are changes that can be made globally in all areas of modern industry. In the specific case of the food industry, the strategies are almost endless. Our current consumption model leaves much to be desired, because not only is it highly unproductive, but its sustainability is nil.
With humanity growing almost exponentially, there are only two possible scenarios. The bullish one would leave us with 15.3 trillion by 2100, and the pessimistic one with a smaller increase. The fact is that since human growth has accelerated, the rate of species extinction has accelerated to the same or greater degree, which is highly worrying. Only an ethical model based on sustainability and low emission-recovery of CO2 and other atmospheric pollutants can help to maintain the climate status we enjoy today for a longer period of time. It must be kept in mind that all changes are ultimately inevitable. We can consider this as a moral problem consisting of solving what we ourselves are causing, without taking into account the non-anthropogenic climate factor.
Current state & future
There are many interesting initiatives in this field. Adopting gestures such as avoiding maritime transport of materials could greatly reduce emissions from commercial activity in general. More specific measures would ultimately establish a modern industrial network with a biotechnological approach. Sibö, for example, combines animal insect protein with fully biodegradable packaging, which sums up very well what we can expect in the near future from new FoodTech companies.