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Are we safe standing here?

2 December 2019

Could the climate change crisis be almost over?

Might the solution be found in the creation of bacteria that consumer CO2 as a food source and thus sequester carbon from the very air we breathe?

According to a report published on Science Daily, work in this area is actually showing promise.

Apparently, "researchers used metabolic rewiring and lab evolution" to create a strain of E.Coli into a form that swapped sugars for CO2 as its main source of energy/food.

If you read the report quickly, it sounds like a great breakthrough... but the devil is in the detail.

Although the bacteria do consume CO2 (from the report): "The authors say that one major study limitation is that the consumption of formate by bacteria releases more CO2 than is consumed through carbon fixation"

In other words... it might work, but right now it doesn't -- please send us money.

Of course that's the way Science Daily works... it's a site where researchers with what they think are promising discoveries go to pich their ideas to investors or funding agencies. It's the way of the world.

However, this whole concept of a bio-engineered solution to the problem of carbon sequestering is a risky one, IMHO.

Imagine that an effective sequestering organism is successfully created and that it is then used to suck carbon from the atmosphere, with a view to bringing CO2 levels down to pre-industrial levels.

Is this really a safe thing to do?

Might the cure not be worse than the complaint?

As we know, bacteria multiply (and thus mutate) at incredibly high rates, thus allowing them to spread and evolve very rapidly. Whilst this might be great while they're sucking the carbon from our overly-warmed air, what happens once that carbon is back to the levels we think appropriate?

How do we turn off these tiny life-forms?

Do we poison them?

Nope, that won't work... there will be far too many of them spread too far and wide for any one-shot-hit to take them out and this means we will be defeated by the evolutionary process. Those which get exposed to near-fatal levels of any toxin will effectively be left stronger and more resistant than the others because the vulnerable will die and only the more resistant will replicate.

Just as these lab organisms were weaned onto CO2 as a food source by gradually withdrawing their primary food, would an "engineered" sequestering strain switch food sources again when CO2 levels dropped low enough? Might they then decide to use polymers as a food source (anyone read "Mutant 59"?) with obviously massive consequences for mankind?

The reality is that our ecosystem is a finely-tuned mechanism that has evolved over billions of years and any attempts to "tinker with it" must surely be incredibly risky. We've already seen far too many occasions when we think we know best how to "adjust" our environment, only to find out just how wrong we were. Rabbits? Gorse? Australian brush-tailed possums?

Surely we must tread incredibly carefully (if at all) if we plan to engineer life forms that we think will solve one or more of the planet's problems. If not, we could be hastening our own demise as a result of unintended consequences.

Your thoughts on this? Are you surprised at the apparent lack of regulation in this area of endeavour?

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