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Reinventing agriculture for climate change
Modern crops have been optimized for a lot of things, but not for climate change.
- Growers are struggling to protect their crops from failure as conditions change due to global warming.
- Modern crops lack the fortifying genetic diversity of their ancestors.
- Scientists publish a new guide for strengthening crops through the reintroduction of wild-variety traits based on the latest science.
The climate we've known for thousands of years is going, going, gone. There are few, if any, places where weather patterns haven't changed and aren't continuing to do so. As we witness increasingly dramatic weather events and climate conditions unfold, there's an arguably even more significant climate crisis occurring in agriculture.
Methods that have served growers well in the past are now jeopardizing the world's food supply, not to mention the growers' livelihoods. Centuries of breeding have helped plants thrive and endowed them with characteristics that enhance their appeal in the marketplace. This crop optimization comes at a cost, however: A lack of the genetic diversity that might help them adapt to rapidly changing climate conditions. Many of these crops have been bred to grow well in a climate that no longer exists.
"When the human race first domesticated crops, the climate and environment were completely different — what we are seeing in the last 50 years is a rapid change in climate. The world is now frequently facing catastrophic climate events like droughts and in the UK we are now seeing some crops being harvested up to a month earlier than they used to be." — Dr. Rocio Perez-Barrales, University of Portsmouth
Clearly, it's time to rethink agriculture. Now, scientists from the University of Portsmouth and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Gardens — have developed a guide for agriculture in the face of climate change. If it has an overriding theme, it's that it's time to reintegrate wild variants of plants back into the genetic mix to strengthen crops' survivability.
The research is published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.
The problem with domestication
Credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash
"When plants were domesticated," says Dr. Perez-Barrales, one of the study's authors, "they were artificially selected for a specific desirable trait. Artificial selection and farming have led to quality improvements in foods such as meat, milk, and fruit. However, over hundreds of years, there has been a negative impact to this process — a reduction in plant genetic diversity."
This lack of diversity could spell doom for crops as the conditions in which they grow are impacted by climate change. Scientists believe that a plant's natural genetic makeup, which evolved in response to its surrounding conditions, makes it more likely to be able to continue to adapt. Domesticated crops may lack such flexibility.
According to Dr. Perez-Barrales, "Climate change is altering the way crops behave." Unfortunately, she adds, "Crops have lost so much genetic diversity they are less able to adapt and respond to climate change. Scientists are now looking at wild crop relatives to see what traits can be improved to make crops better adapted to the current environmental challenges."
This revisiting of crops' ancestors is very much on the mind of the new study's authors.
A break from past practices
Credit: ittipon/Shutterstock/Big Think
The researchers began with a re-visiting of guidelines published in 1971 to see how they might be modified. Says Perez-Barrales, "The classification developed in the early 1970s needed to be updated, and in effect rebooted, to integrate this modern information."
The study's lead author Juan Viruel of Kew Garden explains, "With this information we can better select the wild species to improve our crops. It is an invaluable checklist for plant breeders and will help production of crops in a more sustainable way."
Those earlier guidelines also endorse the use of pesticides, now understood to harm fauna and leave fields toxic. The new study suggests a more benign, forward-looking way to deal with pests, says Perez-Barrales: "An alternative for plant breeders is to use wild crop relatives and use the natural genetic variation in those species that protects them against the natural enemies."
An example: linseed
To explain the type of guidance offered in the new study, Perez-Barrales offers linseed as a case in point:
"Some crops have just a few closely related species, whilst others might have a hundred or so," she says. "For example, linseed has more than 150 related species, and the challenge is how do we select the relevant traits and from what wild relatives? In answering this question, we realized that we needed to learn more from the biology of the species, which can only be done by using modern classification developed using the latest science."
"There may be a demand to grow linseed, for example, in countries at different latitudes. Linseed (Linum usitatissimum) was domesticated in the Middle East 10,000 years ago, and we can grow it in England because it naturally captured genes from pale blue flax, Linum bienne, allowing the crop to grow in northern and colder environments. My research looks at the natural variation in flowering of wild Linum species to see if we can use it to improve linseed. That way the right genes can be selected and introduced into the crop, something that plant breeders do regularly. These new guidelines will help plant breeders become more sustainable and efficient. We believe it is the future of farming."
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.