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A tale of dwarves, snakes and bacteria

By Ben Wade - posted Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Like many a geeky eighties child I love Red Dwarf. The story of loveably flawed Dave Lister; last human in the universe, marooned with a misfit crew in deep-space. But between smegheads and dated special-effects did Red Dwarf save the world?

I'm getting ahead of myself, let's go back to something more terrestrial. Human influenced climate-change is happening. There is little or no debate within mainstream science. The probability it's not occurring is so low as to be indistinguishable from zero. We have western governments around the world making real efforts to mitigate climate change. Governments are beginning to understand the moral ethical and political necessity to act on climate-change. Why? Because of an increasingly well-informed populace whom ever more reject the falsities of climate-change deniers and accept the reality we face.

I helped drive that better informed population when asked; "Whenever there's a bush-fire carbon is released, surely over millions of years' worth of bush-fires the carbon would accumulate and warm the earth making it uninhabitable, right?" I explained that doesn't happen because of the carbon-cycle. This is the means by which carbon moves between the earth and atmosphere via biological and geological processes. For example; plants remove carbon from the atmosphere and it can be released by bush-fires. Over time the amount being trapped and released are roughly equal; it's a dynamic equilibrium and that carbon keeps moving in a circle; a bit like Ouroboros, the legendary snake eating its own tail.


The problem with climate-change is we've taken the tail out of the snake's mouth. By digging fossil-fuels out of the ground and putting that carbon into the atmosphere we've overwhelmed the cycle; we are putting it out quicker than the cycle removes it. Maybe we should use less fossil-fuels or none at all, sounds like a perfectly good idea. But with the carbon-cycle in mind maybe there's another approach. Could it be that the problem with fossil-fuels isn't fossil-fuels themselves but rather where we get them from? What if, instead of digging it up, we made it from the atmosphere, fossil-fuels are mostly carbon and hydrogen and there's plenty of that in the air?

Now aficionados of Red Dwarf (geeks who again found themselves dateless so plonked themselves in front of the TV) will remember Lister, to avoid peeling a mountain of potatoes, stole a programmable virus. As its name suggests, the virus could be 'programmed' to do whatever you want; such as eat potatoes' skin. Now our unfortunate protagonist winds up naked and bald when the virus devours his hair and clothes, but humour aside the concept is interesting. What if we made a programmable organism, maybe a bacteria, and 'programmed' it to capture carbon out of the atmosphere and convert it into long-chain hydrocarbons; essentially petrol?

A bit too science-fictioney? Well it might surprise you that people are working on just this and are closer than you might think.

One such person is Craig Venter. You may know him through the work undertaken at the Craig Venter institute, including his role in sequencing the human genome. Recently he made news after he produced 'synthetic life'. What the scientists did was make a copy of the genome of a bacteria, the DNA of that cell. This was produced synthetically then introduced into a living bacteria. The cell they introduced the synthetic DNA into was a different species than the synthetic genome. Once in the new cell the synthetic genome took over, and in doing so changed the bacteria's species.

Venter is also attempting to find the minimum number of genes that a bacteria needs in order to live and replicate. This is linked to his 'synthetic life'; how? Well once you have your minimal cell it wouldn't do much, it wouldn't make toxins, resist antibiotics or any of the cool things that make me love bacteria, it'd just reproduce….it'd be a blank sheet. And that is what you want; now when you synthesise this genome you can start adding new things, different metabolic pathways; say one that could make petrol from the air?

This is exactly what Venter intends to do.


But why stop there? I firmly believe this technology will one day impact just about every industry you care to imagine. Bacteria made to order and capable of undertaking nearly any task you want. It will effect everything from medicine to food safety, water treatment and practically every manufacturing process there is; anything where you turn one thing into another could be utilising customised bacteria.

The scientists doing this draw their inspiration from many sources, but I like to imagine that some of them grew up watching Red Dwarf. It makes me smile to think that slobbish Dave Lister may have help us put the tale back in the snakes' mouth.

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About the Author

Ben Wade is a molecular microbiologist and doctoral candidate working in the sphere of animal health and welfare. Ben is affiliated with the CSIRO, Monash University and Deakin University in Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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