Monday, November 30, 2009

Biodegradable = Scam

I saw a lot of good money spent on "biodegradable" cups, plates and trash bags this past week.

For those of you who've never had a tour of a landfill, nothing rots in a modern landfill.

Modern landfills permanently entomb trash within impermeable layers of rock and plastic sheeting (see pic.), compacting the refuse into a dense, anoxic environment that prevents the infiltration of water or air (and therefore any real amount of biological decomposition). This is a good thing! The last thing you want is for a city's worth of old batteries and diapers to corrode and seep into the groundwater. Completed landfills are sometimes covered in grass and converted to golf courses or parks, but trees can never be planted due to the disruptive impact of their deep roots.

I find the biodegradable sales pitch especially disingenuous when it comes to "compostable" plastic products made from corn. These plastics are only compostable under rigorous, professional conditions. If you throw them in any old pile, they'll be around for years just like corn cobs or wood.*

I don't see cutting down on landfill space as a big environmental priority at any rate (especially in a country with as much surplus wastelands as the U.S.). I'm a lot more concerned about slowing the paving over of our best wildlands and agricultural soil, and conservation that limits the oil and mining-intensive production side of consumption (as opposed to just figuring out how to throw out what we're done with).

Use it up, wear it out, fix it up or do without...

* Has anyone actually tried to compost these corn plastics? Did it work? What are your conditions?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Osage Oranges

Osage oranges are probably the most interesting thing I saw in the ~ 1,000 miles I've driven so far this week (that and that Hokies *really* like to decorate their cars).

The lime-green, softball-sized fruit littered the ground along backroads (particularly in West Virginia), where these normally nondescript trees grow in crowded rows of rusty, cluttered branches. These trees were commonly planted as thorny hedgerows in the 1800s, prior to the invention of barbed wire. Maybe the trees I saw were the remnants of old fences.

It's been hypothesized that the fruit of this tree were once dispersed by extinct North American ground sloth, elephant or horse species. There are a few giant fruit species that appear to have lost their co-evolved animal disperser (e.g. avocado, prickly pear and papaya). These marooned plants are sometimes referred to as "anachronisms." There's pretty good evidence that ground sloths were the natural disperser of Joshua trees in the American Southwest. Their extinction is leaving these plants in the lurch as climate change slowly moves their habitat away.

Native to Texas, Osage orange was one of the species planted throughout the Midwest and Great Plains by the U.S. government during the Great Depression to improve the environment and give the unemployed something to do. One of my friends once told me that tons of (now very large) walnut trees remain on marginal land in Indiana. I guess most people have forgot about them, but their high quality wood is ripe for harvest.

The twisted old Osage orange in my parents' yard finally keeled over this fall. Half the root system was dead but the thing still appeared to be alive when it began to shed its leaves a few weeks later. My siblings and I had some fun trying to cut into one of its fruits when we were young. Those things are impossibly sticky. I remember it took us about an hour to work our way into it with one of my mom's kitchen knives, which she was then forced to throw out.

My parents have been losing a lot of the old trees that I grew up with. According to their arborist, their soil has too many boulders to allow the trees adequate purchase. Tulip trees are springing up in place of a lot of non-natives, which is a pretty good trade. A couple old walnuts, a Paulownia and a massive cherry (the largest I've ever seen, ~4' dbh*) are on their slow way out. Good specimens of these species can be worth thousands of dollars in lumber and veneer wood. I've been egging my parents into trying to sell them before they completely collapse, but they're no doubt too gnarled and heartrotted to be worth anything.

A quick Google search suggests that no one has any interest in harvesting yard trees anyway. In addition to poor dimensions, urban trees are often filled with old nails, screws and fence wire - which may have become invisibly entombed a hundred years ago, but can kill when the mill saw encounters them.

*dbh = diameter at breast height (a standard forestry metric)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wooly Mammoth Hunting Licenses

RE-POST FROM 2.2008*

I came across an encouraging article on the USDA-ARS website. They describe a project to develop perennial warm and cool season grasses to supply ranchers on the Great Plains with forage for their cattle year-round. Many of these varieties are based on native species, improved for standard agronomic traits such as ease of seed collection. Grass-fed beef is relatively green as it doesn't require fossil fuel-intensive corn and soybean feed and doesn't produce burdensome concentrations of manure**. The American prairie co-evolved with numerous (mostly extinct) herbivores in the first place, and in the end a grassland grazed by cattle isn't much different than one grazed by bison.

This reminded me of this old letter to Nature from a few years ago (Re-wilding North America). The authors argued that we could simultaneously restore North American ecosystems and conserve endangered species by introducing animals such as elephants, camels and lions to open preserves in the United States. North America had many native large mammals prior to human colonization (including several elephant, horse, camel and lion species). It's likely that the late colonization of humans with sophisticated technology drove this whole class of animals to extinction here as it had in Australia. The introduction of similar species from Africa, in their minds, would restore our native ecosystems to a more pristine and functional state (for example, they point out that the pronghorn antelope probably co-evolved closely with the now-extinct American cheetah).

I think their most interesting argument is that this project could increase the public's dedication to preserving wild lands in general. They cite that more people visit the San Diego zoo's wild animal park each year than the National Park system. They propose that humans have an innate aesthetic interest in watching large herbivores and that the dedication of new wildlife parks could be justified by introducing these animals (many hunting ranches are apparently already stocked with such animals in Texas). These new parks could be established in economically depressed regions to simultaneously benefit local communities and justify the preservation of large tracts of undeveloped land.

This reminds me of the recent Pennsylvania Wilds project, which was created to bring tourism dollars to rural PA, and largely revolves around the re-introduction of elk (for watching and highly-coveted hunting licenses). I think we should take this a step further. Cloning technology will soon*** allow us to produce reasonable facsimiles of many of the large mammals that our ancestors recently drove to extinction. It seems to me that if the United States can make room for wild populations of wolves, bears, bison and moose then it could certainly support other similar, formerly extinct species... or at least the likes of passenger pigeons. These resurrected organisms won't be identical to the animals we drove to extinction thousands of years ago. More often than not, they will be rough behavioral and morphological hybrids with existing species. I don't see why this should be a deal-breaker though. The authors of the Nature paper point out that the highly acclaimed re-establishment of the extinct Midwest peregrine falcon was really done by breeding other peregrine falcon subspecies from around the world. Not the same thing, but still very much worth it.

I think the reintroduction of charismatic extinct animals and the dedication of new wildlife parks could really energize the public to value wild lands and the lifestyle choices that preserve them. With all the inaction-inducing guilt usually associated with environmental awareness, I think it could be worth it to show that extinction isn't always forever.

*Because I spent all night writing a post about Osage oranges and realized I wanted to link to this idea. I have a few re-posts in queue from my old grad school blog (where I mostly complained about being in grad school)
**yeah, but inefficient = expensive
***Well, I think 10-15 years is an okay guess. The nitty gritty challenges of synthesizing and assembling large genomes are pretty daunting, but JCVI is making some impressive progress.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Did Beer or Bread Come First?

This is why I follow Rachel Lauden's blog.

The Omnivore's Advantage

I learned something pretty fascinating on Nova's "Becoming Human" series. You can watch it for free here.*

Many hypotheses have been suggested to explain how our species (H. sapiens) replaced neanderthals (our sister species, H. neanderthalensis) - e.g. we killed/out-competed them because we're just so smart and have such amazing technology and rich social lives. The scientists interviewed by Nova also put forth an idea I hadn't heard before that is both less self-serving and more interesting - we may have driven the neanderthals to extinction with our omnivory.**

According to the interviewed scientists, neanderthals were carnivores, adapted to hunt big game with handheld spears in social bands (possibly with effective language). In addition to oft-cited human technological skills (e.g. a handful of javelins is much safer and more efficient than a spear) and social skills (e.g. sophisticated language), humans had skinny bodies that required far less food. It's been estimated that the heavy stature, large brains and cold environment of neanderthals likely required 5,000 calories a day!

I would imagine that an incredibly effective way to drive a specialist animal (like neanderthal) to extinction would be to introduce a similar, generalist species (humans) that could eat just about anything - but preferred the same food the specialist ate.

Neanderthals (like wolves) would have been forced to follow migrating game. The additional pressure of climate change (e.g. repetitive ice ages) would affect the abundance and distribution of prey species dramatically. Normally, it should be fairly simple for a predator to follow changing game distributions around a small continent, but humans could upset this balance.

Picture a small, warm valley in Northern Europe that supported enough deer, wild cattle and sheep to support a band of neanderthals. If they reproduced too much (or another band of neanderthals moved in), the now-unsustainable harvest of prey would force them to disperse to better hunting grounds, and in time, with relaxed predation, the prey would likely repopulate the valley.

But if a band of humans moved in, they may not only help over-harvest the big game, but also refuse to leave when the game ran out. Maybe there's still good year-round living to be made on rabbits, seeds, fish, grubs and berries. And while they're out gathering, they'd certainly help themselves to any of the (now rare) big game that they came across.

While neanderthals were wandering around Europe, becoming increasingly desperate, humans may have been getting fat and having babies.

It also was pretty interesting to hear how climate change in general seemed to shape our species and how our culture and technology radically changed our relationship with our environment. I thought it was pretty fascinating to hear that megafauna extinction was correlated with date of first human arrival. Large African animals weren't driven to extinction because they co-evolved with humans and only a few large European and Middle Eastern animals (e.g. neanderthals) were driven to extinction since they first ran into us relatively early. Large animals in North America and Australia were discovered suddenly by extremely modern humans and were apparently wiped out accordingly.

Finally, it occurred to me that almost all the animals that we routinely compare ourselves to (e.g. most medical research animals and livestock) share something in common that's different from us - they're all adapted to temperate and Mediterranean climates. Humans, on the other hand, are a tropical species. The Nova series also touched on a unique human adaptation that would surprise many of us. Humans are one of the only species on the planet capable of being active in extreme heat. Most animals are forced to rest to try to stay cool during hot, 100+ degree days. Although it's very uncomfortable and we use up a tremendous amount of water in the process, we're perfectly capable of remaining active.

This is seen in the practice of persistence hunting, which has been proposed to have been practiced by our ancestors in Africa and still occurs today. This strategy simply involves walking up to some large animal (like a big antelope) during the hottest part of a tropical summer day, and then tracking it after it runs away. The hunters repeatedly catch up to and scare off their prey (which, by the way, amounts to running a marathon under a 100+ degree sun). The prey never has a chance to rest long enough to cool off and eventually becomes incapacitated by overheating and is easily killed. Appropriately, humans are also adapted to long-distance running. I suppose any of us could still train to do this, though our light color phase individuals would get a bit of a sunburn...

The interviewed scientists also emphasized that while humans have existed for a relatively short time compared to other Homo species, our species appears to be uniquely flexible and adaptable. I wonder if this extends to our diet? I seem to remember hearing about a Pacific Northwest Native American group subsisting almost exclusively on mussels, and didn't the Mongols create one of history's greatest empires mostly on meat, milk and blood? Not to mention the heavily industrialized foods that many of us consume today. It kinda seems to me that humans can thrive on pretty much whatever food's available (not that all contribute equally to a long, enjoyable life!).

Think of our omnivory when you eat this week.
Happy Thanksgiving!

*Thanks for the open access, Nova!
**I'm in no way a paleontologist, so feel free to point out any errors

Thursday, November 19, 2009

HOT Pepper!

The secondary focus of my research is the comparative metabolomics of the Solanaceae (i.e. I'm seeing what kinds of chemicals are present in different fruits in the nightshade family).

Our 2009 Upstate summer was waaay too cool and short for a number of our more tropical species and landraces* so I dug up and moved a dozen or so of them to the greenhouse to finish up. Our Latin/South-American chilies are finally about done.

I'm especially intrigued by our accession of Capsicum eximium, which is, as far as I know, a completely wild, undomesticated pepper. I would figure that it wouldn't be particularly hot or flavorful since these are among the first traits that humans improve when they start saving seed.

In the wild, peppers "want" to be eaten by birds (which digest the fruit without hurting the seeds) over mammals (which tend to chew the seeds to death) so they produce capsaicinoids, super spicy chemicals that only mammals can taste!

A recent PNAS study found that spicy subpopulations of a wild chili were attacked less by insects and a pathogenic fungus than less spicy subpopulations. Although this would suggest that peppers can protect their seeds from fungi and animals by being hot, the authors' previous study also found that plants that produced lots of capsaicinoids tended to have thinner seed coats - which are more vulnerable to animal digestion. The authors suggest that these selective pressures favor a population with mixed levels of spice. I would imagine that when peppers are routinely spicy, mammals would learn not to eat them, allowing some individuals to enjoy the benefits of thick seed coats (better germination after bird consumption) without suffering losses to mammalian herbivory (due to low spice).

As I collected the tiny, glossy red C. eximium fruit, I remarked to my co-worker that they looked like little candies. (Ironically, our yellow-fruited Peruvian aji variety is actually named "dulce.")
"Should I try one?"
My coworker laughed at me for the suggestion. I popped one into my mouth: a thin, shriveled little fruit less than half an inch long.
"It's like chewing on a piece of bark... there's no flavor at all....
oh wait! it's really flavorful!.. and a little hot!
it's pretty hot. hmm, it's getting hotter. uh, it might be really hot...
uh oh....."
I spat out the pepper and laughed as the spice burned across my tongue, which eventually went a little numb. I looked around, regretting I was away from my desk.
"Is this [greenhouse spigot] water "industrial" or can I drink it??"
It wasn't the hottest pepper I've ever eaten: that was one I mistook for a snow pea pod that left me flushed, out of breath and (for more than an hour) with a burnt throat.**

It was incredible though that a pepper as small as C. eximium's could be that HOT! I never would have guessed. I would need many dozens of them to equal the weight of a habanero or jalapeno (which aren't big peppers to begin with) It was really good too! Very flavorful. Would be great for chili.

* I have to plug Johnny's Seeds here. This "employee-owned" seed company operates out of Maine and produces appropriately cold-adapted varieties. We had tremendous yields out of multiple varieties of pepper and eggplant (which are notoriously cold-intolerant) in spite of our unusually cold and short, Northern summer. Our wild and heirloom varieties (that we got elsewhere) were a complete failure as of September.

** I feel that I should put this in the perspective that I love spicy food more than almost anyone I know. My mom never cooked spicy food when I was a kid, but I was known in my family for eating salads that were "gray" with black pepper and I want any restaurant cook who's cooking my Mexican or SE Asian food to feel personally challenged that they can't make it too spicy.

Slavery in Florida

Florida produces 90% of all U.S. supermarket tomatoes in the winter (not to mention citrus). According to Talk of the Nation, they also are dealing with the persistent, illegal practice of debt-bonded slavery in farm labor.

5% of Florida farm workers are estimated to suffer from this treatment. Workers have been shackled in the field, beat, locked in trucks at night and forced to fight each other. Unbelievable. I hope law enforcement down there is getting all the resources they need to end this.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Engineering Glaciers

Glacier Man describes the efforts of a retired civil engineer, Chewang Norphel, to create "artificial glaciers" to act as reservoirs in the Himalayas.

Norphel spent his career building roads and bridges in rural Asia, working closely with the locals and using locally-available materials. Toward the end of his career he began to focus on water scarcity as disappearing glaciers and streams were threatening Himalayan farmers with starvation.

Norphel noticed that the spring snowmelt was largely supplied by large rafts of ice in forested areas - where shade prevented thaw until temperatures were warm enough to plant crops. He realized he could augment this process by building shallow reservoirs to collect and hold winter precipitation until the spring thaw - delivering water to the fields at the exact correct time for planting. Each of these artificial glaciers (he's built 10) costs 6-20 thousand dollars and unlike more expensive cement reservoirs, are capable of recharging the groundwater.

Norphel's glaciers currently supply water to 10,000 people, doubling their crop yields and allowing the production of valuable crops such as barley and potatoes. Although climate change is a serious threat to this very effective, locally-appropriate technique, he sees great opportunities in other dry, mountainous regions such as Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Eating Animals"

I listened to Jonathan Safran Foer discuss his new book, Eating Animals, today on On Point.

What I've heard to date suggested he would be an irrational extremist, but on the radio at least, he was calm, logical and (when it came to the economics and logistics of agriculture) accurate.

He asserted that the treatment of animals in industrial agriculture falls below the ethical standards of all people, that people would be revolted if they actually understand how animals are treated and that the only solution is to become a vegetarian (as low-intensity agriculture isn't productive enough to keep 6 billion people in beef and chicken).

A lot of people seem to be freaking out about his book, but his appearance on the radio was reasoned, consistent and offered one possible answer to my question.

He said that he's never met someone who was a proponent of factory farms, but I think that may just reflect his social circles. I'm all for legislating the humane treatment of animals, but I don't think that's mutually exclusive with high intensity animal ag.

Monday, November 16, 2009

"We are not anti-dryer; we are pro-clothesline"

Grist has a nice interview with Alexander Lee, founder of Project Laundry List, on his efforts to promote eco-friendly clotheslines (over electric dryers). Apparently HOAs (home owners associations) are the primary obstacle.

Why anyone would be willing to live in a neighborhood where a HOA can tell them what to do with their property is beyond me...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Pretty Plant Diseases

Our local Ellis Hollow blog has some nice poinsettia pics. As I mentioned earlier, a plant disease is responsible for bushy, heavily-flowered (well, they're not really flowers) varieties of poinsettia.

Phytoplasma infections commonly cause symptoms of phyllody (the transformation of flowers into leaf-like structures) and virescence (the production of green flowers). Much like virus-induced tulip color breaks*, phytoplasma infection of poinsettias is commercially valuable.

Modern tulip color breaks (irregular stripes) are actually caused by a genetic mutation (not viral infection), which is much better for long term health of the plant. I don't know if similar genetic improvements have been made to poinsettias.

*The most famous color break tulip, Semper Augustus (pic), marked the peak of the speculative bubble known as tulipomania. In one famous account, a single tulip bulb was supposedly sold for "two lasts of wheat, four lasts of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat swine, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four tuns of beer, two tons of butter, one thousand pounds of cheese, a bed, a suit and a silver cup!"

Saturday, November 14, 2009

What's your Gardening Geography? [UPDATED]

If you're like me, you grew up consulting the USDA hardiness zone map to forecast what plants could be successfully grown in your climate. These zones are defined by the average minimum temperatures experienced in a given region of the country. E.g. plants that are hardy (can survive) to 15-20F could be expected to survive in zone 8 cities such as Seattle or Dallas. An updated map is currently in the works to reflect the recently warmer climate and the extent to which major urban areas retain heat.*

You may have noticed that very different climates are included within the same zones. As an extreme, Wikipedia points out that both the Shetland Islands and southern Alabama sit on the border of zones 8 and 9. Hardiness zones don't account for numerous critical factors, including average high temperatures, rainfall patterns, humidity, probability of extremely cold temperatures and the protective effect of snow cover.

Such fine-scale differences in microclimate are influenced by both topology and regional weather patterns and account for much of the regional variation in ecosystems. The EPA currently has a project (which I'm fairly obsessed with) that is working to map and define ecoregions across the United States by geography, climate and native vegetation. It's an awesome resource for native gardeners or anyone who wants to appreciate their local wildernesses on a more holistic, "systems" level.

Sunset Books has been including more than average minimum temperature in their gardening recommendations for years. Originally specializing in the diverse gardening habitats of the Pacific and Intermountain West, they now include specific gardening recommendations across the U.S.

According to their Plant Finder, Boston is hot and humid enough in the summer (yet not too cold in the winter) for a native North American palm tree. Who would have thought?

UPDATE: here's the provisional updated hardiness map. yikes!
*I keep hearing reference to some study that predicts global warming will bring Virginia temperatures to upstate New York within a few decades. As someone who loves cold, snowy weather, I desperately hope this isn't true!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Tomatoes are Vegetables, Legally

The official USDA Definition of Specialty Crops found its way into my mailbox this week.
"The terms used to describe these specializations derive from millennia of common usage and are sometimes at odds with botanical nomenclature. For example, vegetables are described as herbaceous plants of which some portion is eaten raw or cooked during the main part of a meal. Fruits, for horticultural purposes, are described as plants from which a more or less succulent fruit or closely related botanical structure is commonly eaten as a dessert or snack. By these definitions, plants such as tomato, squash and cucumber are considered vegetables despite the fact that the edible portion is defined botanically as a fruit. The delineation of plants by common usage was legally established in 1893 by the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Nix vs. Hedden."
It's never occurred to me that plant names could have legal definitions in addition to scientific and colloquial ones, but there you go!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Winter's A'Coming

The last of the Canada geese are straggling through Central New York and my harvest is officially finished. I've finally processed the last of my fall produce, grown and bought. Boxes of chili peppers, corn, tomatoes, apples and pumpkin are now all cooked, canned, dried and frozen.

Our experimental farm plots are all plowed and planted in cover crops. We picked the last of our corn towards the end of October. We couldn't have asked for a more perfect fall day. We busily shucked and gossiped our way down the range, occasionally looking up from our hands to take in the cold, blue sky and surrounding forest of straw-colored corn plants. Most of our colleagues were less fortunate the previous two weeks, picking their corn in sub-40F weather as their bags filled with sleet. I was thankful to be wearing gloves when we hit patches riddled with a pink fungus known for the production of carcinogenic and brain-melting mycotoxins.

I'm ready for our current warm stretch to subside. I'm amazed that some insects aren't dead or hibernating yet. I actually saw a 6" dragonfly last weekend. The Pacific salmon and steelhead are thick in the famous tributary of Lake Ontario, the Salmon River, but I don't think our local Atlantic salmon and lake trout will start climbing the rivers until we get some more cold rains.

Here's to some snow!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fun with Dumpster Diving

I enjoyed some leftover soup and bread tonight from my friend's grocery store job. It's a shame how much expired food normally gets thrown out in our food system. I remember my fellow grad students' exasperation that expensive bell peppers are regularly thrown out as soon as they begin to wrinkle.

I met them for lunch outside the MU one sunny day while aspiring student council candidates buzzed around us.

One particularly affable undergrad approached us to explain why he was the man for the job. He noticed the big bag of bagels on the table and cheerfully accepted an offer for some free food.

"Where are these from?" the young politician asked, reaching into the bag.

"They're from, uh, well, from behind Noah's, they're....
dude, they're from a dumpster."

His face slumped in disbelief as my friend sheepishly explained that they were found wrapped completely in two clean bags - and were therefore perfectly edible.

He quietly declined and moved on to the next table.

In Defense of Feedlots

Could concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) be the key to sustainability?
"As an example, one dozen eggs, transported several hundred miles to a grocery store in a tractor-trailer that can carry 23,400 dozen eggs is a more fuel-efficient, eco-friendly option than a dozen eggs purchased at a farmers’ market (4.5 times more fuel used) or local farm (17.2 times more fuel used)."
hat tip: AgWired.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, urban pioneers try to bust city anti-ag ordinances.

hat tip: Ethicurean.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Third Way for Agriculture

Finally! Someone describes a sensible marriage of industrial and organic agriculture.
"There are many promising avenues to pursue: precision agriculture, mixed with high-output composting and organic soil remedies; drip irrigation, plus buffer strips to reduce erosion and pollution; and new crop varieties that reduce water and fertilizer demand. In this context, the careful use of genetically modified crops may be appropriate, after careful public review."
Sound familiar?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Real Threat of Genetic Engineering

Opponents of genetic engineering have displayed a real failure of imagination. The threat of genetic engineering in the hands of corporations is nothing compared to the hands of the people.

Though corporations are incredibly powerful, they are also incredibly visible and incredibly predictable. The big ag biotech companies all operate out of enormous industrial parks, are inhabited by thousands of people who care just as much about their communities as you do, and advertise what they're working on incessantly.

Capitalism is a powerful tool for the generation of wealth, and it's simply a matter of regulation and redistribution whenever a society holds non-laissez faire values. Most instances of corporate "crime" are no more than the failure of a government to enforce the values that its people expect. I don't know anyone who thinks that the U.S. government is as effective as it could be, but overall it really does an excellent job through regulatory organizations such as the USDA, EPA and FDA.

You may have a philosophical axe to grind against Microsoft, but the reality is they're always being watched and they get sued when they step out of bounds. Individual hackers concern me a lot more since they have extremely diverse motivations and are completely under the radar until something goes wrong.

There is currently a very active amateur genetic engineering movement. By all accounts, their accomplishments have been laughably rudimentary - on par with mid-level college biology labs - but it won't be this way a few years from now. The equipment, techniques and reagents necessary for genetic engineering are rapidly advancing in effectiveness while their costs crater (e.g. the cost of sequencing DNA is falling faster than Moore's Law).

What will happen when anyone can create, manipulate and release life?

I don't think we can predict the ramifications of this, but it will certainly be at least as revolutionary as our burgeoning personal integration into the Internet. The cutting edge of genetic engineering is quickly climbing into the science fiction realm,* is mostly open access, and can be well approximated with homebuilt equipment and common chemicals. I can't imagine the solution to this, but we'll have to start thinking about it pretty soon...

* Have you seen this? Scientists have removed the disease-causing genes from the HIV virus, and used it as a vehicle for gene therapy, possibly curing two children of a neurodegenerative condition.



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