GMOs and nanotechnology – hope for the future

6 06 2013

I ran into some interesting ideas that seem to display why we should not immediately discredit new science – like genetic engineering or nanotechnology – because it might well provide clues to how we can continue to live on this planet.  So rather than taking a global stand against GMOs or nanotechnology perhaps we should look at how the science is used.

Carbon dioxide (CO2)  – the natural gas that allows sunlight to reach the Earth –  also prevents some of the sun’s heat from radiating back into space, thus trapping heat and warming the planet. Scientists call this warming the greenhouse effect. When t­his effect occurs naturally, it warms the Earth enough to sustain life. In fact, if we had no greenhouse effect, our planet would be an average temperature of minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius)[1].  My kids would love the skiing, but they’d be too dead to enjoy it.  So carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect are necessary for Earth to survive. But human inventions like power plants and cars, which burn fossil fuels, release extra CO2 into the air. Because we’ve added (and continue to add) this carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more heat is stored on Earth, which causes the temperature of the planet to slowly rise, a phenomenon called global warming.

Carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas (GHG) – others include water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride – but it’s the most important.  And it’s going up as a direct result of human activity.[2]  Just recently, we passed a milestone that climate scientists have warned is impressively scary – for the first time in human history, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will surpass 400 ppm.[3]

So what to do? Traditionally, we’ve relied on natural systems to deal with this extra CO2 – like trees and other plants which soak up the stuff through photosynthesis.  But the amounts being generated exceed the capacity of natural systems to deal with it.  So we look to technological solutions, which basically consist of:  capture (i.e., trapping the gas at its emission source and then putting it someplace where it won’t escape) and geologic sequestration or storage (putting it someplace where it won’t escape.)  But I’m not a believer in these measures – after all, captured CO2 must be transported (by rail, truck or ship) to its final storage place.  And where is there a storage place that will not leak and can accommodate the 30 billion metric tons of CO2 we generate every year – without dire environmental consequences.

We have to look outside the box.  There have been many such ideas, from the more outlandish (i.e., create man-made volcanoes to pump sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to block sunlight and cool the planet[4]) to several I’ve outlined below that just might help.  But they depend  on the use of GMO and nano science.

As Technology.org describes it:  “It is not widely appreciated that the most substantial process of carbon sequestration on the planet is accomplished by myriad marine organisms making their exoskeletons, or shells.   Shells are produced biologically from calcium and magnesium ions in sea water and carbon dioxide from the air, as it is absorbed by sea water. When the organisms die, their shells disintegrate and form carbonate sediments, such as limestone, which are permanent, safe carbon sinks.”[5]

from ecoco: sustainable design

from ecoco: sustainable design

By studying how sea urchins grow their own shells, scientists at Newcastle University in the UK have discovered a way to trap CO2 in solid calcium carbonate using nickle nanoparticles.  “It is a simple system,” said Dr Lidija Siller from Newcastle University. “You bubble CO2 through the water in which you have nickel nanoparticles and you are trapping much more carbon than you would normally—and then you can easily turn it into calcium carbonate.”[6]  Most carbon capture and storage programs must first trap the CO2 and then pump it into holes deep under ground, which is both expensive and has a high environmental risk.    Lead author, PhD student Gaurav Bhaduri, is quoted: “ [the nickel catalyst]  is very cheap, a thousand times cheaper than carbon anhydrase”.  The two researchers have patented the process and are looking for investors.

Meanwhile, MIT professor Angela Belcher, who had done her thesis on the abalone,   and graduate students Roberto Barbero and Elizabeth Wood are also looking into this.  They have  created a process that can convert carbon dioxide into carbonates that could be used as building materials. Their process, which has been tested in the lab, can produce about two pounds of carbonate for every pound of carbon dioxide captured.

Their process requires using genetically modified yeast.

Yeast don’t normally do any of those reactions on their own, so Belcher and her students had to engineer them to express genes found in organisms such as the abalone. Those genes code for enzymes and other proteins that help move carbon dioxide through the mineralization process.

The MIT team’s biological system captures carbon dioxide at a higher rate than other systems being investigated. Another advantage of the biological system is that it requires no heating or cooling, and no toxic chemicals.

Dr. Belcher has also used genetically modified viruses so they would have a binding affinity with carbon nanotubes – which allowed them to build a high-powered lithium ion battery cathode that could power a green LED.  Dr. Belcher thinks that she might one day drive a virus-powered car.

I think these two examples demonstrate that we should always keep an open mind.  And remember that it’s not always the science that’s causing a problem, but rather how we use it.  The idea that GMO seeds are intellectual property (owned largely by Monsanto) for example, is one of the wrong ways to use this technology.  But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.