Wednesday, July 19, 2006

More on 50-terabyte DVDs and genetic modification... and thank God for sex!

Last week when I posted about the 50-terabyte, GM DVDs I made a little mistake. Not sure why I didn't realise it when I was writing the post, but of course proteins are the building blocks of all living things, not just animals! As a regular commenter (Jair) pointed out to me in an email, the proteins used for these DVDs are likely to be bred inside bacteria, not animalia. So it's hardly an ethical concern as it would be if we were using animal parts.

Of course, the concern about genetic-modification is still technically valid, although I am not particularly bothered by it. Another reader (vociferously anti-GM) who responded by email said "I'm opposed to GM crops, for whatever purpose." Granted, it's a very important concern to some, but I instinctively feel it's a predictably Luddist (remember
Ned Lud?) approach to take; like the fear of "recycled" water, not necessarily a rational or objective objection, but an emotional one.

I understand that GM is kind of scary to some people, but let's not forget natural genetic modification happens every day, every moment, as cells divide and replicate DNA inexactly, and on a much bigger scale every time a zygote is formed from sexual reproduction. GM is just a much faster (and possibly less-predictable) way of having that happen. I'd guess for these saltmarsh microbes the genetic modification necessary to survive at high temperatures was simply copied from the bacteria that are found in really hot places (perhaps deserts, volcanoes, who knows?) so it's based on parts of other genomes already found in nature – not a completely random experiment. Since microbes can't sexually reproduce, Renugopalakrishnan couldn't just politely ask the volcano microbes have sex with the microbes containing bR protein. Genetically-modified bR was the only realistic option.

On a side note, thank God for sex! How fortunate it is that we humans have thrown out so many trillions of not-so-useful and downright unhelpful traits from our genome via natural selection. (Of course some of us still retain some that could probably be chucked out!)

Mainly, I wanted to highlight how reportage of technology advances such as these rarely bother to take into account the effects the technology may have on society, including the good effects. Let's see... It's a biodegradable, completely sustainable resource, compared to magnetic strips! It's a way of storing an unimaginably large amount of information (50TB or roughly a million megabytes) incredibly cheaply (assuming existing light-based burning technology will be adequate). Despite dire warnings about information security and the risks of genetic modification, I think this is overwhelmingly good news for society!

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Anonymous jair said...

Opposed to GM crops per se is kind of silly. Granted, it was also kind of silly to pick canola as the flagship for GM crops, which does actually breed with other species (infrequently). A better selection would have been wheat or barley, since they don't actually breed with anything apart from themselves (pollen doesn't survive long, tends to drop straight down onto the stigma (female bits of plants)).

GM crops could be a wonderful boon for society. I am currently working in the field of genetic technologies for crop species, which uses both genetic engineering and traditional breeding to make better crop plants. The GM varieties are not released (illegal in this country), but the traditionally bred ones are (15 years after the trait has been proven to be a good one, however). If GM crops were able to be grown in this country, this lag time between breeding and commercial release could be halved.

Apologies for the hobby-horsical nature of this comment, but, well, you know what it's like when people talk about things you feel strongly about.

July 19, 2006 5:01 pm  
Blogger Lisa said...

Jair I'll try to be the voice of your underdeveloped social conscience :)

It's easy to say it about plants becuase they're so clearly in the domain of "there to be useful to humans" whether as shady trees, pulp for pulp mills or as food sources, usually the latter. What about GM animals. Is it sensible to be opposed to GM animals per se?

What about GM animals of the human variety? (I find the idea distasteful, but that's just a gut reaction).

October 13, 2006 5:07 pm  

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