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Trees Bleeding Oil and The Future of Biotech

Question: What is the potential of biotechnology for the distant future?

Lee Silver: I wrote my book, Remaking Eden in 1996, and I speculated about what technologies might be coming down the road. My speculations actually brought a lot of negative comments from other scientists who said you can't speculate, and that's all hyperbole, and we're never going to be able to do the things that you claim. One of the things that I claimed in 1996 was that we would have a complete sequence of the human genome by 2020. It turns out that we had that in 2003 and I think that's a proper way of looking at the entire field of biotechnology. It has gone forward so much faster than anybody could have possibly imagined, both in the sense that we [understood] it a lot quicker, and we have the tools to manipulate living things, and we have the computer technology that is essential to read and to write DNA, to read and write all of the different things that are going on inside cells. Biotechnology is really limitless.

If you can imagine something, it's probably going to be done. It doesn't break the laws of physics, it didn't actually write on a piece of paper something then we can do it. Let me tell you grand plan of Craig Venter, the bad boy of biotech is what he is called, because he is an entrepreneur and [he] challenged the government to sequence the human genome in three years for a 10th of the money the government was using, and it was a tie in the end. He made a lot of money and he wants to help the world, and I actually agree with his vision. This is the vision. What do we want as a people? We want to have renewable fuel. We want to be able to use energy that doesn't affect the environment, that doesn't affect the atmosphere in any way. We want to maintain wilderness so that we can maintain biodiversity, and that's for aesthetic reasons, it's not for utilitarian, it’s that we have a love for nature. Okay. That's the second thing. Then, we want to do this in an environmentally friendly way and in a way that's economic, and in a way that is sustainable. What Craig Venter would like to do ultimately, is create organisms, which look like trees, in fact they are trees, but instead of these organisms producing sap, the organisms would produce something like diesel fuel, or some other kind of source of energy. You would have a tree that's taking in the sunlight. The sunlight is converted directly into fuel. And I mean, diesel fuel isn't old fashion way of thinking, but that's what plants do is they convert sunlight into molecules that hold energy. That's where all of our fossil fuels come from. And then you have this system, and this is science fiction right now, but you have a system where you have a whole forest and under the ground the fuel-sap is being collected into pipes and coming out – and so the forest provides comfort to us. The fuel is completely carbon neutral, it's taking carbon out of the air, you put carbon back into the air. And you then take the fuel if its diesel fuel or any don't let cars run on it, you would put that into energy generating stations which create hydrogen fuel or some clean fuel.

So all of this is dependent on biotechnology. It's dependent on saying, we have manipulated the earth, and we've been doing this for 10,000 years. This is not something that started in the 20th century. If we look at the European landscape, there is nothing in Europe that is natural. And there's nothing that's been natural in Europe for hundreds of years. If you go across France you see these pleasant meadows, and fields of grain, and cow, and a few clumps of trees here and there. And none of that's natural. The natural European landscape was covered in Evergreen Forests. They were all cut down to have agriculture and what is growing there now is not natural. And so the notion that natural is false. And you might like it, it might be pretty, but it's not natural, it's human created. So if humans have done that, and humans have done worse things to the world, my feeling is why not take over? Why not say, okay we've manipulated the plants so let’s put together systems that will sustain human life, provide food, let's use biotechnology to the greatest extent possible, let's make sure that we don't do things that harm people. That’s easier than it sounds. And I think that would be an ideal world.

Recorded on:  September 11, 2009

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Princeton Biology and Public Policy Professor Lee Silver describes a vision in which biotechnology has taken over the natural world—but in a responsible, sustainable way. "If you can imagine something," he says, "it's probably going to be done."

Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

Credit: Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
  • In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
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White dwarfs hold key to life in the universe, suggests study

New study shows white dwarf stars create an essential component of life.

NASA and H. Richer (University of British Columbia)
Surprising Science
  • White dwarf stars create carbon atoms in the Milky Way galaxy, shows new study.
  • Carbon is an essential component of life.
  • White dwarfs make carbon in their hot insides before the stars die.
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"Forced empathy" is a powerful negotiation tool. Here's how to do it.

Master negotiator Chris Voss breaks down how to get what you want during negotiations.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Personal Growth
  • Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss explains how forced empathy is a powerful negotiating tactic.
  • The key is starting a sentence with "What" or "How," causing the other person to look at the situation through your eyes.
  • What appears to signal weakness is turned into a strength when using this tactic.
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Octopus-like creatures inhabit Jupiter’s moon, claims space scientist

A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
Surprising Science
  • A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
  • Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
  • The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
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How to catch a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE before it’s gone

Unless you plan to try again in 6,800 years, this week is your shot.

Image source: Sven Brandsma/Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Comet NEOWISE will be most visible in the U.S. during the evenings from July 14-19, 2020.
  • After July 23rd, NEOWISE will be visible only through good binoculars and telescopes.
  • Look in the northwestern sky below the Big Dipper after dusk while there's a chance.

UPDATE: NASA is broadcasting a NASA Science Live episode highlighting Comet NEOWISE. NASA experts will discuss and answer public questions beginning at 3PM EST on Wednesday, July 15. Tune in via the agency's website, Facebook Live, YouTube, Periscope, LinkedIn, Twitch, or USTREAM.

Before last evening, July 14, 2020, the easiest way to see Comet NEOWISE — the brightest comet to zoom past Earth since 1977's Comet Hale-Bopp — from the United States was to catch it about an hour before sunrise. Now, however, you can see it in the evening, where it will remain for until the 19th. This is a definite don't-miss event — NEOWISE won't be coming back our way for another 6,800 years. It's the first major comet of the millennium, and by all accounts, it's unforgettable.

NEOWISE just got back from the Sun

Comet NEOWISE is named after the NASA infrared space telescope that first spotted it on March 27th. Its official moniker is C/2020 F3. It's estimated that the icy comet is about three miles across, not counting its tail.

NEOWISE is now heading away from our Sun, having made it closet approach, 27.4 million miles, to our star on July 3. The heat from that encounter is what's given NEOWISE its tail: It caused gas and dust to be released from the icy object, creating the tail of debris that looks so magical from here.

As NEOWISE moves closer to Earth, paradoxically, it will be less and less visible. By about July 23rd, you'll need binoculars or a telescope to see it at all. All of which makes this week prime time.

An evening delight

star constellation in sky

Image source: Allexxandar/Shutterstock/Big Think

First, find an unobstructed view of the northwest sky, free of streetlights, car headlights, apartment lights, and so on. And then, according to Sky & Telescope:

"Start looking about one hour after sunset, when you'll find it just over the northwestern horizon as the last of twilight fades into darkness."

It should be easy to spot since it's near to one of the most recognizable constellations up there, the Big Dipper. "Look about three fists below the bottom of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle high above, and from there perhaps a little to the right." Et voilà: Comet NEOWISE.

Says Sky & Telescope's Diana Hannikainen, "Look for a faint, fuzzy little 'star' with a fainter, fuzzier little tail extending upward from it."

The comet should be visible with the naked eye, though binoculars and a simple telescope may reveal more detail.

You may also be able to snap a photo of this special visitor, though you'll need the right gear to do so. A dedicated camera is more likely to capture a good shot than a telephone, but in either case, you'll need a tripod or some other means of holding the camera dead still as it takes a timed exposure of several seconds (not all phones can do this).

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