Sustainable Future?

Sir Martin Rees says we have only a 50% chance of seeing out this century as a human species. Can we alter the balance of probabilities by adopting sensible development policies and actions for sustainability?

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Science Blogs

I put the following blogs on a previous blog site - so they are repeated here for a hopefully larger audience.

Marathon Mice

Researchers unveiled genetically engineered mice that can run farther and longer than their naturally bred brethren, bringing genetic doping of athletes a step closer.

The gene engineered in these mice essentially mimics exercise, conferring endurance and preventing the modified mice from becoming obese—even when they are inactive and fed a high-fat diet.

The research paper has been published in the online journal Public Library of Science Biology.

The engineered mice apparently ran 1,800 meters and stayed on the treadmill an hour longer than the natural mice.

The pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline PLC is already conducting human experiments with a chemical that turns on the "fat switch" in hopes of developing a drug to raise levels of "good" cholesterol.

As something of a couch potato myself, this looks like a promising development, but how can it be kept out of the hands of athletes, or should it? If similar results can be achieved in humans, will we have to have 2 classes of athletes at the Olympic Games, or will it be like the obsolete concerns over the difference between amateurs and professionals that used to rule out some athletes from competing in the Olympic Games?

At the last Olympic Games, there was considerable concern about doping to enhance physical performance. But what about for us mere mortals? Could employers create human drones that work consistently all day long, without slacking off towards lunch time or the end of the day? Some recent research indicates that blocking dopamine receptors might just do that.

Procrastinating monkeys were turned into workaholics using a gene treatment to block a key brain compound. Blocking cells from receiving dopamine made the monkeys work harder at a task -- and they were better at it, too. Dr. Barry Richmond and colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health used a new genetic technique to block the D2 gene, which makes a receptor for dopamine, a key brain messenger.

In their study, Richmond and colleagues used seven rhesus monkeys, which had to push a lever in response to visual cues on a projection screen, and got a drop of water as a reward. Apparently, without the dopamine receptor they consistently stayed focused and made fewer errors, because they could no longer rely on visual cues to predict when they were going to be rewarded.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Richmond and colleagues said they were trying to figure out how D2 is involved in a type of learning which involves looking at how much work there is, visually, and deciding how long it will take to complete it. Monkeys and humans tend to procastinate until the last possible minute to finish up the work, and become very adept at estimating how long they have.

Molecular geneticist Edward Ginns created a DNA antisense agent that tricked brain cells into turning off their D2 receptors. Antisense involves making a kind of mirror-image molecule that looks like a strand of DNA and works to block a gene's action.

Although the researchers said that they were interested in the research to treat mental illnesses, are there adequate social and ethical barriers to stop employers (or get-ahead employees) from using this knowledge? Will you find yourself competing for a job with someone chemically primed to work all day and night?


Have we over-estimated the importance of genomes (and by implication the Human Genome Project)? Is epigenesis a more fruitful field for understanding human disease and behavior? Is the rush to patent genes equivalent to seeking patents for each word in the dictionary?

Matt Ridley in an article titled "Humans have no more genes than mice, but don't feel small" points out that the more we find out about genomes, the more humiliating the news they bring us. He says, "the human genome turns out to be profoundly ordinary. We have known for decades that human beings have one fewer chromosome than chimpanzees, which should have been ample warning. We have known for years that grasshoppers have three times as much DNA per cell as we do, deep sea shrimps ten times, salamanders 20 times and African lungfish a staggering 40 times. But we still kidded ourselves until just the last few years that human beings would prove to have more genes, arranged in a more sophisticated way, than most other creatures. How else to explain our exquisite brains?"

He adds, "We have 25,000 genes (or recipes for protein molecules) which is the same as a mouse, just 6,000 more than a microscopic nematode worm and 15,000 fewer than a rice plant." Our sophistication is not related to the number of genes, but rather how those genes are put together, like a recipe in a cookbook. The same ingredients can make mush or cordon bleu dishes.

Almost daily new genome maps of organisms are being published and much of the understanding of what genes do will come from comparing the genomes of different species. Ridley goes on to say, "But comparing the genomes with each other is beginning to unveil some fascinating insights. There is, for example, an intriguing difference between animals and plants, to wit that plants tend to have more genes. This seems to touch upon a fundamentally different approach to innovation employed by the two kingdoms during evolution. When plants need a new trait (or rather, when natural selection imposes an advantage on a plant that has accidentally acquired a new trait), it happens by duplication and divergence: a duplicated version of an old gene evolves into the new one. That is how biologists thought all evolution happened. But animals seem to do it differently. They add a new switch, or "promoter sequence," to the front of an old gene, thus enabling the body to switch it on in a different place or at a different time: the same gene gets an additional job, in effect. The switch, too, is made of DNA text".

Not only do we have the same number of genes as a mouse but they are generally the same genes and only the switches are different. Mapping the human genome was only like opening a book and looking at how many different words were used. The author of the children's Dr. Seuss books once famously used only 55 words to write a book. The challenge now is to glean the meaning of the combinations of genes and how they are switched on and off, between and within species.

Matt Ridley is the author of "Nature via Nurture" (Harper Perennial).

Synthetic Life

The following article describes creation of a polio virus cobbled together from bits bought over the internet. Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees thinks we only have an even chance of making it to the end of this century (Rees, Martin. 2003. Our Final Century). He adds together the remote possibilities of nanobots running amuck and strangelets escaping from a heavy ion collider, to the more familiar threats of an asteroid impact, global warming, nasty pandemics, and environmental degradation. He does not like the resultant odds. He sees new opportunities from science and technology as well as threats. Civilization is now at threat of death by misadventure as well as by deliberate design. He believes that scientists have a special responsibility to make sure that he is wrong. Could the desire to make new forms of life be the ultimate fatal mistake?

What is life? Can we make it?

August 2004

Is "synthetic biology" on the point of making life? Unlike genetic engineering or biotechnology, the new discipline is not about tinkering with biology but about remaking it. Risks and rewards will be greater than anything yet encountered

Philip Ball

Two years ago American scientists created life. Or did they? It all depends on what you mean by life. More specifically, it depends on whether you are prepared to regard viruses as living entities. Viruses have genes, and they replicate, mutate and evolve, all of which sounds lifelike enough. And in August 2002, a team at the State University of New York (SUNY) announced that it had made a virus from scratch, by chemistry alone.

What this meant was that, for the first time since life began over 3.5bn years ago, a living organism had been created with genetic material that was not inherited from a progenitor.

To what did the SUNY researchers choose to award the honour of being the first synthetic organism? They selected a virus that scientists have spent decades trying to eradicate, a cause of human disability and death: polio. If you think that sounds unwise, so did some biologists. Craig Venter, former head of the privately-funded US human genome project conducted by Celera Genomics, called the work "irresponsible" and claimed that it could hurt the scientific community.

To Eckard Wimmer, who led the SUNY team, this alarming choice of target was the whole point. If they could do it, so could bioterrorists. (Note: this looks like a perverse rationale for experimenting on weapons of mass destruction) Wimmer's group did not apply any great technical wizardry: they simply looked up the chemical structure of the polio virus genome on the internet, ordered segments of the genetic material from companies that synthesise DNA, and then strung them together to make a complete genome. When mixed with the appropriate enzymes, this synthetic DNA provided the seed from which the infectious polio virus particles grew. It was so simple that some researchers claimed it could be done by undergraduates. (undergraduates all over the world should protest at this insult)

Making viruses from scratch is just one of the potentially devastating capabilities of a new field of science called synthetic biology. Most biologists cling to the belief that theirs is a pure science, an exploration of the world "out there" - far removed from the moral dilemmas of applied science and technology. But synthetic biology tells us that biology is no longer an immutable aspect of the world.

In a sense, that is nothing new: several of the most contentious moral issues which science has generated in the past decades have hinged on the question of whether, or how much, we should tamper with biology. Every genetically modified organism (GMO) is in some degree synthetic, a product of the human manipulation of genetic material. The same can be argued of genetic clones, and perhaps even of embryos made by in vitro fertilisation. But synthetic biology aims for much deeper levels of intervention than, say, simply adding a herbicide-resistance gene to a plant's genome. Synthetic biology regards living organisms - at the most basic level, single cells - as assemblies of parts that can be reassembled in new ways, or redesigned, or indeed built from scratch, perhaps with completely different materials. It is not about tinkering with biology, but about what exactly biology is, whether alternative biologies are possible, and whether we can remake life just as we can redesign cars or houses.

Bigger benefits, bigger risks

There are some powerful arguments for why we might want such new forms of biology. Some researchers believe that synthetic biology could solve the energy crisis, transform manufacturing into a green technology or rid the world of infectious diseases. It could allow us to combat lethal viruses and tumour cells on their own terms, using their own tricks and weapons. It could deliver new drugs and provide cheaper means of making existing ones.

Yet if ever there were a science guaranteed to cause public alarm and outrage, this is it. (Note: the escape of such organisms, even from secure labs, seems inevitable) Compared with conventional biotechnology and genetic engineering, the risks involved in synthetic biology are far scarier. Whether you approve of them or not, GMOs are more like patients with an organ transplant than Frankenstein's monster. There is no sense in which genetic engineers are "making life" - but that is what synthetic biologists propose to do, if indeed they have not already done so.

Building known viruses from the genome up is one thing, but some researchers are redesigning DNA itself. "I suspect that in five years or so, the artificial genetic systems that we have developed will be supporting an artificial lifeform that can reproduce, evolve, learn and respond to environmental change," says Steven Benner, a chemical biologist at the University of Florida. Benner is no stranger to the controversy that this is likely to excite. Sixteen years ago he organised a conference in Switzerland that pre-empted the new field of synthetic biology. It was to have been called "Redesigning life." "The conference title raised such a furore that it had to be changed to 'Redesigning the molecules of life,'" says Benner. "People were convinced that the original title would incite riots."

The idea of "playing God" is beside the point here - the notion that God cobbled organisms together from nucleic acids and proteins like a chemist experimenting in the lab should be offensive to any theistic faith. In fact, one of the brightest prospects of synthetic biology is that it might allow us to begin exploring how life began, which in turn could force us to take a less sentimental view of what we mean by life in the first place.

There is nothing very spiritual about DNA and proteins, the "stuff of life." To chemists they are just beautifully ingenious molecules. If there does turn out to be anything special about these chemical building blocks which makes them uniquely suitable for sustaining life (and this is by no means clear), it will be for prosaic reasons such as their chemical stability, not because of any vitalistic magic.

What is life, anyway?

Life is not embodied in its molecular building blocks, but it is a characteristic of the way in which they interact. It may be that you could create life from a completely different pool of constituents, just as a computer can be made from ping-pong balls running down tubes, instead of silicon chips. Despite the hype of the human genome project, life's grandeur does not reside in a filament of DNA.

The truth is that life does not have an objective, scientific meaning. (Isn't this amazing - we don't even know what defines life?) Even scientists sometimes fail to recognise this, wasting much ink in trying to come up with an airtight set of criteria that a living organism must meet. They typically invoke such characteristics as the ability to reproduce, grow, metabolise, evolve and respond to the environment. They will fret about whether a living entity must have boundaries, or whether a computer program or a planet can be "alive."

The futility of all this was recognised 70 years ago by the British virologist Norman Pirie, who wrote: "'Life' and 'living' are words that the scientist has borrowed from the plain man. The loan has worked satisfactorily until comparatively recently, for the scientist seldom cared and certainly never knew just what he meant by these words, nor for that matter did the plain man. Now, however, systems are being discovered and studied which are neither obviously living nor obviously dead, and it is necessary to define these words or else give up using them and coin others."

It is natural that a virologist like Pirie should understand this, because viruses are nature's reminder that there are no boundaries between the animate and inanimate realms. No one knows whether to call viruses living or not. Their genes are sometimes, as in the case of polio, encoded not in DNA but in its sister molecule RNA, and they cannot reproduce autonomously: they must infect a host organism and borrow its cellular enzyme machinery to make copies of themselves.

So it remains a moot point whether by creating viruses synthetic biologists have made life. But that ambiguity is likely to disappear in the next few years. Viruses inhabit a grey area, but bacteria are clearly alive: they are single-cell organisms that sequester raw materials and energy from their environment and replicate on their own. No one has synthesised a bacterial cell chemically yet, but it is not far off. The technology for synthesising strands of DNA chemically - by stringing together their four distinct molecular building blocks, or nucleotides, one by one in specified sequences, like combining words to make sentences - is on the verge of being able to generate sequences of 1m or so nucleotides. That is long enough to construct the genome of some bacteria - the smallest known bacterial genome, that of the Mycoplasma genitalium, contains just 517 genes, encoded in a genome of 580,000 nucleotides.

Craig Venter, who now heads the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives in Rockville, Maryland, believes that Mycoplasma genitalium could point the way to a "minimal genome": the smallest complement of genes that can support a viable organism. One way of finding out what is essential and what is an evolutionary luxury is to strip out genes from the bacteria one by one and see if the cells survive. Another option is to make the pared-down genome from the bottom up, by chemical synthesis of DNA, and see if it can be brought to life - that is, used as the blueprint for making an organism. Last November, Venter reported the synthesis of the complete genome of another virus, a bacterial pathogen called phi X. In contrast to the polio virus genome, which was patched together over many months, Venter's team made the phi X genome in just a few days, demonstrating how quick this DNA technology has become.

Redesigning cells

The odd name of Venter's institute testifies to his desire to use a bacteria-building technology to solve important practical problems. He is being funded by the US department of energy to explore the redesign of bacteria as hydrogen-generating organisms. Some natural bacteria produce hydrogen, but they are neither robust nor efficient enough to provide an abundant natural source of this clean fuel. Venter hopes that, either by transforming existing microbes or by creating entirely new, synthetic species, he can design microbes that make hydrogen for power generation.

Such practical applications are not the only reason for wanting to identify a minimal organism. One of the prime motivations behind synthetic biology is to understand how natural cells work. While this has arguably been the objective of molecular biologists for over 100 years, only recently have they been forced to accept that decoding genomes - reading out the sequences of nucleotides in an organism's DNA - is not going to supply the answer. For all the talk of "reading the book of life," the sequencing of the human genome (completed in draft form in 2000) tells biologists as much about the way human cells function as a pile of engine parts tells the mechanic how a car works. The question is how the parts fit together, and how they interact with one another. This is now being addressed in the discipline known as systems biology.

Systems biologists think of cells as circuits, rather like the electronic circuits of silicon chips. The individual components are genes and proteins, and they are "wired" into networks in which specific elements regulate the behaviour of other components, for example by switching them on or off. Most genes encode the instructions for making particular protein molecules, each with a definite role in cell function. One gene might regulate another gene by generating a protein that binds to the other gene and prevents it from producing its own protein. Biologists are now mapping out this network of interactions, providing them with circuit diagrams of cells. They are finding that many of the motifs familiar from electronic engineering, such as feedback loops, switches and amplifiers, appear in gene circuits too. That is why systems biologists are as likely to be computer scientists or electrical engineers as molecular biologists.

It was inevitable that, once this engineer's view of the cell began to emerge from systems biology, the engineers would start asking what they always ask: what can we make? If cell circuits can be broken down into gene modules that perform well defined functions, what happens if the modules are rewired? Can one design new modules from scratch?

The first demonstration of this thinking came four years ago, when Princeton researchers Stanislas Leibler and Michael Elowitz designed an oscillator gene circuit and plugged it into the genome of E coli, the bacteria that live in our guts. The experimental techniques involved in such a manipulation are tried and tested: biotechnologists have been splicing foreign DNA into genomes for over two decades, using a method called recombinant DNA technology. But until then, no one had thought of making a module that did something as physics-like as oscillate.

What does it mean for a genome to oscillate? In Elowitz and Leibler's module, which they called a repressilator, three genes switched each other off in cyclic succession, so that the cycle of gene repression repeated with a steady rhythm like a game of pass the parcel. The researchers designed one of the genes so that it also triggered the cells to produce a protein that glowed green when light was shone on it. They found that E coli cells fitted with the repressilator module blinked on and off periodically, like tiny living beacons.

As researchers heard at the first conference on synthetic biology at MIT in June, there is now an expanding toolbox of gene modules that can be wired into cells to alter and control their behaviour. In April, Ron Weiss and collaborators at Princeton described E coli cells equipped with population-control modules, so that the cells committed suicide if their population density rose above a certain level. The synthetic module includes genes that make the bacteria emit a chemical, so that they can "smell" how many other cells are in their vicinity. If this "smell" gets too strong, a killer gene is activated that causes the cell to die. Programmed behaviour like this could be exploited to turn bacteria into environmental sensors that spot and signal the presence of toxic chemicals.

Some researchers consider these reprogrammed cells to be like wet micro-robots that can be directed towards useful tasks by downloading genetic instructions into their genomes. It may be possible to fit such cells with safety circuits to prevent their unwanted proliferation in the wild - they could be programmed to die if they were to escape from some highly controlled environment, or could even be fitted with genetic "counters" so that they would become incapable of dividing after a specified number of generations. But it is not clear yet how secure such measures would be. Because of the random mutations that occur during any process of cell division, some of Weiss's cells evolved to escape the population-control mechanism.

As well as rearranging and redesigning the molecular components of life, synthetic biologists are introducing completely new materials into biology. When it comes to making organisms, nature is endlessly inventive, but it is remarkably conservative with its basic building blocks. Just about all proteins are constructed from only 20 different types of amino acid: each protein molecule is a distinct permutation of these ingredients, strung together in a chain and then usually folded up into a compact shape. Similarly, the genome of every organism in existence contains just the four nucleotides of DNA (except for RNA-based viruses, which are a minor variation) arranged in different sequences. There seems to be no fundamental reason why biology has to use this limited palette - it is simply that, just as with some industrial processes, changing the set of components is too costly to be worthwhile. But scientists have now made bacteria that can use new, non-natural amino acids in their proteins, and non-natural nucleotides in their DNA.

Similarly, the genetic code - the correspondence between nucleotides and amino acids, which enables protein structures to be encoded in genes - is essentially identical across all of biology. But it is now possible to change the code: to make cells that perform the DNA-protein translation in another language from the one employed throughout the course of evolution. The book of life, in other words, is written not in stone but in soft clay, and we can wipe it clean and start again. How would a bacterium fare if its genetic code was entirely different? Would it evolve more quickly, or in unexpected directions? Could it breed with natural bacteria? We may soon find out.

How worried should we be?

New ethical questions raised by science tend to fall back fairly quickly on old templates. And the notion of creating life is an ancient template indeed: Mary Shelley was fully conscious of the legends she evoked, since her father William Godwin was the author of Lives of the Necromancers, with chapters on Paracelsus and Faust. Paracelsus's instructions for making the homunculus, an "artificial man," were drawn from the same mythic well that produced the Golem of Jewish cabbalistic fable. When science intersects with cultural myths as profound as this, the ensuing debates tend to get shaped by undercurrents of which the participants are often unaware.

There is greater continuity between Mary Shelley's tale and modern biochemistry than is often appreciated. The dream of a chemical creation of life was very much alive at the turn of the 20th century, and was announced more than once in the newspapers. In 1899, biologist Jacques Loeb discovered that sea urchin eggs could be made to produce larvae by treating them with inorganic salts, without the need for fertilisation by sperm - "artificial parthenogenesis," as Loeb called it. The Boston Herald hailed this as the "Creation of life: Lower animals produced by chemical means."

Three years later, Loeb was being compared to Frankenstein. He did little to dispel such notions, claiming that "We may already see ahead of us the day when a scientist, experimenting with chemicals in a test tube, may see them unite and form a substance which will live and move and reproduce itself." Nor was this an idiosyncratic position: Darwin's champion Thomas Huxley maintained that the biological goo known as "protoplasm" was sure to be put together some day by chemists. "I can find no intelligible ground for refusing to say that the properties of protoplasm result from the nature and disposition of its molecules," he insisted. By 1912, the president of the British Association for the Advance-ment of Science confirmed that scientists were on the threshold of "bringing about in the laboratory the gradual passage of chemical combinations into the condition which we call living." The dream has always been too seductive to relinquish.

The image of the Promethean scientist whose quest for knowledge unleashes destructive forces beyond his control might be a romantic distortion of the way in which science works, but synthetic biology surely provides more cause than biotechnology or nanotechnology ever have to worry about a runaway catastrophe. And synthetic biologists themselves admit as much - they are already showing deep concern about the directions their nascent discipline could take.

The most immediate fear is that catastrophe could be engineered. Last November, the CIA issued a report, "The Darker Bioweapons Future," which cited the SUNY work on the polio virus and cautioned that the advances that are driving synthetic biology could also lead to biological agents with effects "worse than any disease known to man." The report hinted at the need for "a qualitatively different working relationship between the intelligence and biological sciences communities."

Scientists would, of course, prefer self-regulation. Already, scientific journal editors have taken it upon themselves to delete from papers details that could be judged as posing security risks. The American Society for Microbiology asked an author to remove a description of how a lethal natural toxin could be modified to boost its potency one hundredfold.

Some feel that such measures do not go far enough; others fear that they are already a threat to academic freedom. Certain precautions ought to be routine: for example, some companies that synthesise DNA sequences now check their orders against the genome sequences of known pathogens. But the industry remains barely regulated; biologist Roger Brent of the Molecular Sciences Institute in California has suggested that DNA synthesis might in future require a licence. The nightmare scenario, however, is that synthetic biology could generate a "hacker" culture analogous to the internet - except that the viruses which hackers designed would be real, not virtual.

George Poste of Arizona State University, who weathered several scientific controversies as chief science and technology officer of the pharmaceuticals giant SmithKline Beecham in the 1990s, fears that synthetic biology is poised to fall foul of the fantasy of a zero-risk culture. While the problems this new science might address, such as the spread of diseases ranging from Aids to Sars to malaria, have come to be regarded by society as business as usual, public concern focuses on the extreme, rare disasters that new technologies could precipitate. According to Poste, a powerful technology like synthetic biology whose implications are extremely hard to predict requires "a framework for navigation, not prescriptive controls."

But Poste acknowledges that some of the risks of this field are real. He has suggested how a "risk factor" for new scientific developments might be estimated on the basis of their possible benefits, dangers and unknowns. When the risk factor exceeds a given threshold, this would act as an alarm signal.

Whichever path is taken, Poste believes that "biology is poised to lose its innocence" - the price that is always paid when science becomes technology. Some might argue that this innocence was forfeited years ago with the development of the recombinant DNA techniques that enable genetic engineering. But we would be wrong to regard synthetic biology as "the same thing, only more so." The field should bring real benefits, and it poses real dangers. It will also signal a new relationship with nature, one that will uproot some treasured, if confused, notions about what "nature" and "life" mean.

The author, Philip Ball, is a science writer and a consultant editor for "Nature." His latest book is "Critical Mass" (Heinemann). I hope he doesn't mind this plug.

Leapfrogging Technology

Leapfrogging was how the Thailand’s Prime Minister described his vision of Thailand moving up the manufacturing value chain. Thaksin Shinawatra named the country’s auto assembly and auto parts industries as candidates for this ambitious undertaking (The Nation Editorial - 10 June 2004).

“If the frog is to jump a long distance, it needs to leap from hard ground. This is supposed to be food for thought, for now,” he was quoted as saying to a group of reporters at Government House.

The editorial writer responded by using the boiling frog analogy. “For the frog – by which Thaksin means Thailand – to take this proposed leap of faith, it will need to be rescued from the heated-up water in the pan, by which we mean the government’s manipulation of the population’s unprincipled wants and needs with its populist policies, chief among them the oil price controls which are cushioning both industry and consumers. Like the frog, Thais cannot be expected to get strong or competitive by staying in the “comfort zone” forever. If Thaksin wants it to leap, he should avoid boiling it.”

So is it possible for developing nations in Asia-Pacific to leapfrog over outdated technologies causing environmental damage in their production, use or disposal? Or are they forever condemned to play catch up with developed countries and remain “boiling frogs” rather than champion leapers? Apart from the obvious example of the mobile phone, what are some of the possibilities?

Does anyone out there have any views on the most likely forms of outdated technology that developing countries could avoid by leapfrogging ahead?

Sustainable Cities

One of the more interesting outcomes of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro has been the proliferation of Local Agenda 21 plans. The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) currently lists some 460 members, representing more than 300 million people, dedicated to creating sustainable cities. It is believed that cities are the best test bed to protect and repair the environment, because they represent the institutions closest to the people and their problems. If this is true, then one would expect to find breakthrough technologies first appearing in cities committed to sustainability. However, is it even possible to imagine a truly sustainable city?

Greater Vancouver, Canada has developed an award-winning 100-year plan ( It sees the city of the future being more like a living organism, with buildings fulfilling multiple functions, flows of materials, water, and energy in short loops connected to larger loops, multiple transportation choices as well as less need for longer distance transport, and greening of the import/export supply chains. However, the design is based mainly on technology that already exists or is under development, and does not anticipate new technologies that could totally change the nature of a city.

While the Jetsons cartoon series on television illustrates the extremes of possible new transportation technology, serious efforts are being made to change the way we move people and goods. The mag-lev train in Shanghai is a shining example of such technology, but it illustrates how far the rest of PRC will need to change if city transportation is to become sustainable. There are still more than 540 million bicycles in PRC, but riding them becomes more hazardous every year. Almost all the bicycles made in PRC are now exported. A recent survey in 20 cities by the Association of Chinese Customers found a third of urban families plan to buy a car within five years. In 2003 annual car sales (2 million plus) increased by over 80% over 2002. Yet only three in one thousand Chinese own a car. In Shanghai, the auction price to reserve a license plate is rapidly escalating to over $4,000. If ever there was a case for leap frogging technology, this must be it.

Inventor, Palle Jensen in Denmark thinks he has the answer. Rapid, urban, flexible (RUF) vehicles provide an electric vehicle for short individual trips and become part of a computer-guided train when they enter an elevated, automated guideway. RUF vehicles could travel at speeds up to 100 km/hr. RUF owners will plug in their vehicles to recharge overnight and drive to the guideway in the morning, entering their destination into a computer. They can then sit back and read the newspaper. After exiting the guideways, the driver takes over the controls again and proceeds to the office. A prototype is under development at the Engineering College of Copenhagen.

Another alternative for those who don’t mind mass transit systems is Calgary’s “ride the wind” project. Calgary, Canada, has a light rail transit system completely powered by wind energy. About 157,000 passengers ride the C-Train every day (BLP-UNHABITAT).

Of course, if you didn’t need to travel to the office at all, then commuting would not be such a constraint. In Chula Vista, California, residents can drop into a neighborhood telecenter and telecommute. Telecenters have computers, modems, telephones and other office support services to complete normal office activities. To avoid running around town filling in forms for urban services, e-government can also reduce inner city transport. Digital democracy, telematic participation and citizenship and building an online interactive community is the key idea of Iperbole, an Internet-based citizens free-of-charge metropolitan civic network set up in 1995 by the city of Bologna, Italy. The Municipality of Bologna offers free email, direct access to its website, and free internet connections.

However, even if you don’t need to drag yourself away from your home computer, what about that energy inefficient house? In Germany, the Trade Union Confederation proposed a project to retrofit buildings to reduce energy consumption and create jobs. Approved in 2000, by September 2003 115,000 renovation projects had been approved and thousands of new jobs created, not only in traditional building industries but also in photovoltaics, solar heating, new insulation materials and building materials. For every dollar in subsidies, there has been $5 in private investment. After renovation, owners have experienced up to 85% energy reduction.

For new buildings, the BedZED project in the London Borough of Sutton involves architect designed, well-insulated, low energy, and low land consuming housing that is also very attractive. For low-income housing provided by the government, the Housing Executive in Ireland has retrofitted flats with solar panels, provided energy efficient lights and appliances and energy efficiency advice to the tenants. To date, about half of the energy generated has been surplus to requirement and goes back into the grid (EEB et al 2004).

If you are in an energy efficient house, don’t need to commute (or commute on zero emissions mass transit), and minimize your consumption, and all your neighbors do the same, is it then a sustainable city. Unfortunately not! Disposal of wastes remains a major problem for most cities. One of the most innovative solutions is in Fukuoka, Japan, where wastewater is treated and recycled into a parallel water system for flushing toilets and other water uses that don’t require “new” water. Fukuoka has also devised a semi-aerobic low cost solid waste treatment system that is being implemented in many other Asian locations. Microbial fuel cells that use bacteria to generate electricity from wastewater have been developed and are being scaled up for commercial use (and being shrunk to fit into space modules for a manned flight to Mars).

The final test of how sustainable your city is depends on how much of your building (and other urban infrastructure) is recycled once its useful life is completed. Carpets and acoustic ceiling tiles are being recycled in several cities in the USA. Bricks, cement rubble, timber, and wiring have been reused for many years. Strangely enough no estimate is available of what percentage of the average house can be recycled. Of course, the poor in developing countries are used to recycling their building materials as they are often relocated from land on which they have squatted. They can just load their building materials on a bicycle or their backs and relocate.

There is ample evidence that cities could be made more sustainable - but how much?. There is a 20% Club in which cities commit to reducing their burden on the environment by 20%, but no-one has yet dared to target zero impact on the surrounding environment. The mystery is why no city government has yet provided a comprehensive model for other cities to follow. Is anyone aware of which city would be regarded as the world leader in sustainability? Sydney, Australia is now calling for design suggestions, so you would get an opportunity to implement current best practice.


"Nanotechnology will reverse the harm done by the industrial revolution".
Dr. Richard Smalley, head of the Nanotechnology Initiative at Rice University,

Reading about flying nanotubes and how science often goes off in strange, sometimes serendipitous, sometimes dangerous directions, one wonders where nanotech will land humankind environmentally? While I think the grey or green goo scenario is a little extreme, is it possible that nanotechnology will answer all our 1990's environmental problems, or simply create a whole new bunch of difficult messes to clean up after?

“Molecular nanotechnology (MNT), the design and construction of macroscopic materials at the molecular level, will play a major part of solving the issues of both sustainable resource extraction and byproduct mitigation. Furthermore, MNT is the only technology that holds promise for achieving something like a sustainable First-World standard of living for the entire world” (Gillett 2002).

Possible ways for nanotechnology to address current environmental concerns include:

(a) Better catalysts and solid electrolytes for fuel cells, which can use fuels other than hydrogen at ambient temperatures;
(b) Defect-free materials, including composites based on defect-free fiber (such as nanotubes) matrices, yielding greater strength and reducing vehicular weight and fuel needs in transportation;
(c) High performance capacitors and batteries that would complement solar energy systems;
(d) Continued miniaturization (such continuing the trend from vacuum tube to transistor to microchip) reducing materials intensity, and in information and communications technology, continuing the progress towards the paperless office;
(e) Passive energy systems, such as electrochromic windows, that darken automatically as the intensity of sunlight increases;
(f) Light emitting diodes emitting white light, which will make heat-yielding incandescent and fluorescent globes obsolete, and reduce air conditioning requirements;
(g) Thermo-electric devices for geothermal energy production;
(h) Super-strength materials in turbines and wind generation units, subject to storm damage;
(i) Photovoltaic materials that can be “painted” onto surfaces, such as roofs;
(j) Powdered oxide semi-conductors for destruction of pollutants;
(k) Artificial photosynthesis to harness solar energy;
(l) Semi-permeable membranes in which only certain dissolved substances, such as pollutants can cross the membrane barrier;
(m) Use of carbon aerogels as electrosorption electrodes for water purification;
(n) Improved ion exchange resins for extracting minerals from waste streams;
(o) Bio-waste as feedstock for the chemical industry

Gillett (2000) concludes “(i) the phase-out of fossil fuels will be well advanced in another decade, and nanotechnology will play a great role in that phase-out; (ii) the five-millennium era of locating anomalous deposits to "dig up and cook" for metals extraction is coming to its close, probably over the next few decades and certainly within the next century; and (iiii) over the long term as the "distributed fabrication" promised by molecular nanotechnology becomes realized, global energy consumption for transportation will also drop massively. If almost any artifact can be fabricated locally, no longer will it be necessary to ship raw materials and finished goods halfway around the world, with the enormous energy consumption this entails”. Ironically, he notes that this will presage a new Stone Age.

Chen, Chau Jeng (Jeremy) (undated) Nanotechnology – Magic of Century 21st.

Copyright or Copy Right

We sometimes forget that much of the East Asia success in industry was due to wholesale copying of Western goods. It was not so long ago that "made in Japan" was a derisory term for cheap and poorly made knock-offs of Western products. China, Taiwan and Korea have followed the same development path. Will over-zealous protection of patents and copyright bar this path to development for some of the upcoming least developed countries?

The Patent Cooperation Treaty was first signed in Washington in June 1970. It has been amended several times since. The latest version has been in force since April 2002. It provides protection and legal remedies for registered inventions. By filing one international patent application an inventor can seek simultaneous protection in over 100 countries, including a number of developing countries. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is helping developing countries to develop improved patent protection laws and to ratify the Patent Cooperation Treaty, the Madrid system for the international registration of marks, and the Haque system for the international registration of industrial designs. Similar protection is afforded copyrights through the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literacy and Artistic Works. Plant varieties can be protected by patents or by a special system (such as breeder’s rights under the International Convention for Protection of New Varieties of Plants).

The Trade in Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement (Annex 1C of the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization) was negotiated as part of the 1986-1994 Uruguay round on international trade negotiations. For developed countries the TRIPS provisions came into force in January 1996. Developing country members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) were given a transition period until January 2000 and least developing countries were given an even longer extension until January 2006 (pharmaceutical patents have been extended to 2016). The TRIPS Agreement makes intellectual property rights (essentially copyright and patents) an integral part of the multilateral trading system.

The International Chamber of Commerce estimates that 7% of global trade is counterfeit and the counterfeit market is worth $350 billion per year. The Business Software Alliance estimates that software piracy alone is worth $29 billion per year. Counterfeit automobile parts cost the industry $12 billion per year in lost sales and 200,000 jobs in the USA. Fake diet pills, infant milk formula, wines and spirits, and automobile parts (such as brake pads made of sawdust) have also caused loss of life, thus nailing the excuse of a victimless crime. Further examples can be found on the website of International AntiCounterfeiting Association ( The International Federation for the Phonographic Industry estimated that 1 billion fake music compact disks were sold in 2003 (one out of every three music compact disks sold) valued at $4.5 billion, or 15% of the global recorded music market. Of the top ten offending countries, more than half are in the Asia-Pacific region.

Even where developing countries have signed on to these international agreements, in the past, enforcement has been lax in the Asia-Pacific region. You may even be wearing a fake watch or carrying a fake brand name handbag. At home, you may have a collection of fake compact disks, computer software, or pirated movies. Your medicine chest may even have fake pharmaceuticals. Faking it is gradually becoming more difficult in the Asia-Pacific region, partly due to increased government action but also due to developed country firms taking direct action. Lightning raids on manufacturers or outlets selling fake products is now a major activity of security firms in the region. There is even some evidence that terrorist and other criminal groups have combined forces in the counterfeiting trade, thus doubling the determination to crack down on the trade.

New technologies are being employed to deter fakes from being sold. In apparel, DNA signatures are being woven into the cloth. Fancy watermarks and holograms are apparently too easy to copy. At the Sydney Summer Olympics in 2000, 34 million labels of games merchandise were tagged with unique strands of DNA. Revenues lost at the Sydney games were estimated at less than 1%, netting the games organizers an additional $700,000 in royalties. The Atlanta games committee in 1996, however, estimated that half of the merchandise sold around the world was fake (Daviss 2004). The DNA can be sprayed on to a product as a film, embedded in thread or powder coatings, or mixed into the product compounds. A fluorescent reaction with a special reader authenticates the presence of the DNA.

Another side of this story, however, is the rush to patent even simple technologies or even indigenous plant varieties, without adequate review by the US patent examination process. The Electric Frontier Foundation (EFF) cites examples such as one-click online shopping, online shopping carts, pop-up windows, or paying with a credit card online. One large software company (no prizes) has even patented the double click on the computer mouse. Patent holders are now beginning to target small businesses and individuals with million dollar legal demands, clearly aware that they cannot adequately defend themselves. EFF intends to challenge some of the more egregious cases through a Patent Busting Project, aimed at overturning unjustified patents.

Where is the balance to be found between legitimately copying or modifying Western products and blatant theft of intellectual property? Nothing less than a sustainable development path for least developed countries is at stake.

Futures to Avoid

Am I dreaming, or are some beacons of this new hi-tech world beginning to wonder if we are creating a monster? When the Astronomer Royal in the UK says that we only have a 50 percent chance of making it as a species beyond 2100, I am not sure if I want to take that new gene therapy to double my life span to 150.

“The 21st-century technologies - genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics - are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them. Thus we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction, this destructiveness hugely amplified by the power of self-replication. I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals” (Joy 2000).

“West Africa is becoming the symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental, and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real "strategic" danger. Disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms, and international drug cartels are now most tellingly demonstrated through a West African prism. West Africa provides an appropriate introduction to the issues, often extremely unpleasant to discuss, that will soon confront our civilization” (Kaplan 1994).

Juxtaposed between these extreme visions of rampant technology and primitive tribal anarchy, if there is an overwhelming threat to both governments and the private sector alike, it is this notion of global anarchy in either direction. Control over resource allocation and environmental degradation as a survival issue should conjure up sufficient horrors and nightmares to drive a global coordinated effort towards sustainable development, but will it? Will humans follow the “boiling frog” principle and simply adjust to the unfolding possibilities for self-extinction? Will the human species be the first and only species to be responsible for its own extinction?

Should we, as Kaplan (1994) suggests, "Think of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned post-industrial regions of North America, Europe, the emerging Pacific Rim, and a few other isolated places, with their trade summitry and computer-information highways. Outside the stretch limo would be a rundown, crowded planet of skinhead Cossacks and juju warriors, influenced by the worst refuse of Western pop culture and ancient tribal hatreds, and battling over scraps of overused earth in guerrilla conflicts that ripple across continents and intersect in no discernible pattern--meaning there's no easy-to-define threat”. Or is there an alternative, more palatable future? And, if so, what do governments, NGOs and the private sector have to do together to bring it about?


Scientist! That word has captured my heart and soul since I was kneehigh to a grasshopper. I still write proudly “scientist” as my occupation in those ridiculously small spaces allowed on immigration and other forms, which really have no business inquiring about your business. And, I could never find enough space to write “environmental scientist”, which is how I like to define my years of scientific study.

However, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, seems to be leading us up a very strange evolutionary alley. An alley which may not concern you or I in our dotage, but should concern your kids or theirs. I speak of the arcane world of biotechnology, which promises much but also starts to blur the lines between “them” and “us”, to a point where we should be concerned.

The pathetic sight of a mouse growing a human ear promises to make transplants of human organs less dependent on a dead and previously useless cadaver. However, the good wife hails from Thailand where the organ most often in need of transplantation is the human penis. Straying husbands, with their mia noi or minor wives, often wake up with an essential piece of equipment not only missing, but tied to a helium filled balloon, fed to the ducks, or minced in a meat mincer. There is a high demand for such transplants and culturally it is a difficult choice to go to heaven or hell with that particular piece of the body missing. Now, if scientists can grow an ear on a mouse, then a life size, wiggling penis should be a cinch. You just snip off the growth, attach it to the human stump with some of that new factory produced skin (which ironically enough is grown from the snipped off prepuces of new-born boys who have undergone circumcision), and hope that it doesn’t squeak when you pee. If the story ended there, we could mark up a scientific achievement and have another whisky. But wait – what if the next generation of young things find penis-mice, let’s call them elongated rodents, as a handy plaything, a pet, just like the guinea pigs of yesteryear? Can you imagine the parental indignation, when virginal daughter number one is found playing with the elongated rodent under the sheets at night? Fanciful musings of a maniac you say and go back to your whisky on the rocks.

Scientists have discovered how to place useful animal genes into plants. For example, the oil of certain deep sea fish is known to be a strong anti-oxidant and may be very useful in combating cancer. By placing this gene in wheat or corn, millions of lives may be saved from premature death due to a wide range of cancers. Nothing wrong with that, you say, peering over the top of the whisky tumbler. Maybe if they transfer the gene to all kinds of cereals, then even whisky will become healthier for you – and we all know that you only drink for medicinal purposes. However, what if you are a strict vegetarian, God forbid the thought – but millions are, and you have no idea that you are consuming animal genes. Or, what if you are allergic to some particular animal product, such as fish oil, and deliberately seek a diet without fish. Too bad if a few weaklings go under – the greater good … so you claim, until it happens to you or one of your kin. It should be good for the product liability lawyers also. One can see the future labels on all vegetable products – “while the product you are purchasing is mostly vegetable, it may contain animal products which in certain cases could be hazardous to your health. If you are unsure about the contents of this product, please consult your physician”. Maybe vegetable producers will be banned from advertising at Formula I races in India. But wait, there’s more.

The world was shocked when “Dolly” the sheep, the first bigger than a bug sized animal was cloned from an adult cell. Since then all manner of animals have been cloned, including a pet dog, with hardly a whimper about where this technology is leading us. As always, there is a scientist who has publicly announced that he is willing to clone the first human for a price. This approach may solve the dynastic problems of erstwhile leaders such as Dr. Mahathir or Boris Yeltsin, although there could be a time-lapse problem. Worse yet, the innate aggression of the ear-chomping World Champion boxer like Mike Tyson might be a perfect solution for a small presidential guard or an elite battalion. A recent Playboy poll found that Marilyn Monroe was the most desirable woman of the century – for a price, you can have a dozen of them. But the manufacturing of multiple multiple personalities is not my real concern. Scientists everywhere are trying to recreate dinosaurs, especially big ones like Tyrannosaurus rex. Why – the time-honored mountain climber excuse – because it is there. After all, look what excitement it caused in Jurassic Park. After spending billions of dollars eradicating little threats like smallpox, the World Health Organization might have a real fight on its hands. Old hat you say, and begin to nod off to sleep.

After all even a cloned Dolly Parton would need to have a real mother with a real womb and no mad scientist is going to convince dozens of women to have artificially created babies that all look alike. Ho baby, you haven’t seen what scientists have up their sleeve next. They are well on their way to perfecting an artificial womb, in which a cloned adult cell could be reared to birth. Such a device is literally around the corner, and is expected to be perfected by the turn of the century – this one, not the next. Can’t you just see row after gleaming row of artificial wombs, with cloned versions of Tyson down one side, Monroe the other? What global UNSCOM is going to deal with this moral dilemma – euthanasia for the black polyps, a stay of execution for the white ones?

Scientists, bless their tiny little hearts, have discovered that the humble pig is closest to humans in terms of anatomy (in their behavior they are more disciplined and cleaner). So they have been able to transfer human genes to a pig. The adult pig has duly transferred the same genes to its multiple offspring. This could prove very useful, if the gene which turns on creation of a human heart valve and hundreds of little piggies have such valves, transplants into humans would have a significantly lower risk of rejection (baboons, one of closest relatives, have been the animal of choice in the past because of the rejection problem) and we could all go on to live to 140 or maybe 200 years of age, which appears to be about the age dictated by our most reliable body parts. What we would do with these extra years is another question – perhaps we could all become scientists. While recovering from the delirium induced by a recent dose of influenza, I dreamed that this pig thing was so successful that almost any human part could be grown on (or is it in) a pig. Mick Jagger’s lips had been successfully grown, as had the unmentionable parts of Pamela Lee Anderson (grainy photos of which currently clutter the Internet). Now there is a pet for all ages.

Seriously, though, what concerns me is all this fooling around with Nature. The dividing line between plants and animals, humans and the rest were once clear. Not any more. If we can’t distinguish between “natural” and “man-made”, why should we keep protected areas or wildernesses? What will our zoos look like – this side purely natural, the middle section partly natural, and the far side totally created by man? What guidelines will prevent the creation of atrocities – a human head transplanted to a pig impregnated with human genes, for example? How will our moral theologians and philosophers decide the new moral order when the line between them and us is forever blurred? Brave new world – no thanks.


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Jeff Smith's book, Seeds of Deception, compiles 20 years of data on the health risks of genetically modified foods from scientists such as Arpad Pusztai and Trudy Netherwood who reported that feeding GMO food to laboratory animals resulted in thousands of sick, sterile and dead laboratory animals. The book also reports on allergic reactions and toxicity in humans from GMO foods.

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The following countries have banned GMO Food: Algeria, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, Japan, Phillipines, The European Union, Norway, Austria, Germany United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Luxembourg, Portugal, Brazil, Paraguay, Saudi Arabia, American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Australia, New Zealand.

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