Biotechnology’s seductive appeal
One of the most intriguing sessions at the EECO Environment and Energy Conference in Toronto in January was on biotechnology. Most of the progress and investment in this science so far has been in med...
One of the most intriguing sessions at the EECO Environment and Energy Conference in Toronto in January was on biotechnology. Most of the progress and investment in this science so far has been in medicine and agriculture, but the potential applications in areas that are traditionally the purview of engineers were said to be “enormous.” John Banigan, Assistant Deputy Minister of Industry Canada, even compared biotechnology to electricity and the computer in terms of its future transforming power on the world.
Banigan noted that whereas biotechnology used to be thought of as an “end-of-pipe” solution to industrial pollution, living organisms are now being integrated into manufacturing processes themselves. Eleanore Rupprecht, of the Ontario Ministry of Energy, Science and Technology, defined biotechnology as: “The application of science and engineering in the direct or indirect use of living organisms in the production of goods.” Her list of bio-products being developed included alternative fuels, biodegradable autoparts, enzyme bleaches and textiles made from vegetation.
At first take biotechnologies and bio-products seem to offer a miracle “natural” cure for our environmental woes. Among several young biotechnology companies presenting their latest wares at the conference, for example, was Biorem, a firm from Guelph, Ontario. The company makes biofilter units that oxidize the odours, solvents and VOCs from waste streams and reduce the contaminants to nothing more innocuous than carbon dioxide and water. Another presenter was from Biogenie of Montreal, a firm with a proprietary in-situ biological treatment that is customized to each site and eliminates PAHs, PCPs, and hydrocarbon deposits using microbes. The speaker cited a project where they had cleaned up a former petroleum refinery site containing 800,000 tonnes of contaminated sludge. Later on, alternative fuel companies took the stand: Iogen of Ottawa, which is developing ethanol, and DynaMotive Technologies of Vancouver, which makes a clean-burning liquid fuel from forest and farm wastes.
But what was missing from the conference agenda — and curiously so, considering this was an environment conference — was any serious attempt to address the risks and moral issues that these technologies surely present.
Given the opposition to genetically modified crops in Europe, and the alarm over mad cow disease, a fatal disorder that affects humans and resulted from biologically manipulating animal feed, it is foolhardy to be blazing ahead with biotechnologies without grappling with the issue of regulations and controls. Most of the “bio” solutions are likely safe alternatives, but we should first make sure. It was impressive, for example, to see a bed of pale fungus that had been “inoculated” into a pool of toxic sludge. The fungus had grown inches deep in a matter of days as it ate the contaminated material. However, no-one in the audience asked what might happen if the fungus spreads out of control, or seems to have stopped to think what biological hardball that could set rolling.
The difference between traditional engineering and biological engineering is a fundamental one — inanimate objects and substances obey physical laws. Living organisms are complex, unpredictable and dynamic. Engineering the first can be done with some confidence; engineering the second is more by stewardship than control. If we choose to ignore or downplay this deep difference, it could be at our peril. Bronwen Ledger