Technology in Perspective

Jean-Francois Rischard: I think it boils down to two huge forces that are dramatically changing the world, and will do so even more over the next 20, 30 years. One force that’s a dark force is the population increase where we had three billion people in 1960, five billion people in 1990, and now we’re at six billion or a little more. And we’re headed straight to nine billion by 2050. So between 1960 and 2050 we will have tripled the world population on a planet that’s already extremely stressed in terms of the environment, arable land, and even social stresses. So that’s one huge force that is a massive force of change, and that clearly plays a role in my world view. The other force is this new world economy that is based on very inexpensive telecommunications and computer technologies, which is a real industrial revolution. But unlike the earlier industrial revolutions that had to do with transforming energy or raw materials, this one goes very deep because it transforms time and distance, and it makes knowledge the biggest factor of production. And that new economy produces wonderful new things, new markets, new ways of doing things. Just think of Bangalore in India producing $15 billion worth of software services from zero 10 years ago. Think of the iPods. Think of many of these wonderful new things. But it’s also a very tough new economy where you have to be agile. You have to be good at networking. You have to be good at constantly inventing new tricks, and you have to be very liable. And so some companies, and countries, and individuals do very well in that new economy. Some fall by the wayside. So it’s a very both positive and negative force, but it’s a huge force. And we’ve probably only seen 20 percent of it. This industrial revolution based on telecoms and computer technologies still has 80 percent to go. And these two big forces, I think, overwhelm the capacity of the human institutions we have to manage them. The human institutions being nation states, the governments, the ministries, the public agencies of various kinds, the international organizations. All that human system of management is overwhelmed by these two big forces. And so I think we are seeing the beginning of a government’s gap – sort of inability to manage the forces which we ourselves have unleashed. Recorded on: 7/2/07

 

We are only a fifth of the way into the digital revolution.

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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

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Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

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