Beyond GMOs: What happens when synthetic DNA comes to the farm and table?


Thousands of researchers will descend on Boston this fall for an event billed as the world’s largest gathering of synthetic biologists. The field is evolving so rapidly that even scientists working in it don’t agree on a definition, but at its core synthetic biology involves bringing engineering principles to biotechnology. It’s an approach meant, ultimately, to make it easier for scientists to design, test, and build living parts and systems – even entire genomes.

If genetic sequencing is about reading DNA, and genetic engineering as we know it is about copying, cutting, and pasting it, synthetic biology is about writing and programming new DNA, with two main goals: create genetic machines from scratch and gain new insights about how life works.

In Boston, scientists and students will showcase synbio projects developed over the summer, including systems ranging from new takes on natural wonders, like the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to a useful form (nitrogen fixation), to newly imagined functions, like an odorless E. coli cell meant to crank out a lemony, edible “wonder protein” containing essential amino acids. Continue reading

On the Ground: A Visit to Putah Creek

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Elizabeth Case was the first intrepid reporter who along with her newspaper, the Davis Enterprise, signed on as a partner for Local Edition, our community-based reporting initiative. She’s developing an in-depth look at 15 years of restoration efforts along Putah Creek, and her piece will be out as part of our December issue on Borders & Limits. Over the next few months, she’ll be sharing some behind-the-scenes notes from her reporting. In emails, she says her research has taken her deep into the county archives, but she’s also climbed out from under her pile of legal papers to get her feet wet — literally.

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Editor’s Note: The Food Issue

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How is climate change making food production more challenging? What role could technology play in addressing those challenges? Technology is influencing how we produce and consume food, and it could help us feed a growing population. But tech-enabled tweaks to our food system raise concerns as well. This month we’ll take a look at everything from water tech to synthetic foods to explore how we will eat in the coming century. Continue reading

Outlawing Water Conflict: California legislators confront risky groundwater loophole

New Hogan Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District park and recreation area in Valley Springs, Calif. The water level was significantly lower than usual on Jan. 6, 2014. Photo credit: U.S. Army, Kaitlin Blagg.

New Hogan Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District park and recreation area in Valley Springs, Calif. The water level was significantly lower than usual on Jan. 6, 2014. Photo credit: U.S. Army, Kaitlin Blagg.

Water has pushed people to conflict throughout history, and California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only western state without groundwater regulation — but now that looks set to change. Still, the state needs more reform of its convoluted water rights system to reduce conflict as climate change intensifies.

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Drop and Give Me Efficiency: Can the Military Change American Minds on Climate?

The Department of Defense called out climate change as a major threat to national security in its latest Quadrennial Report, validating both climate science and the need to do something about climate change. Could the military’s funding of cleantech projects and the DoD’s stance on climate change help change Americans’ minds on climate change?

When people talk about the military-industrial complex, it’s usually in the pejorative. We tend to focus on excess warheads and toxic chemicals that have made their way from the battlefield to the cornfield. And rightly so. We have more weapons than we could possibly need and many of the environmental plagues of today — excess pesticide use and myriad disposable plastic items, to name two — can be traced back to the military-industrial complex. But so can the Internet, computers, and Global Positioning Systems (GPS).

Just as it has played an important role in technological advancement, the military has historically held a good deal of sway over cultural values, particularly for conservatives. Yes, the military’s mishandling of sexual harassment and rape has been credited with helping to perpetuate rape myths. But the racial integration of the armed forces was a major tipping point for the civil rights movement, and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was considered a big win for gay rights advocates. In all cases, military policies have had a normative influence on U.S. culture far beyond any direct impact on enlisted men and women.

With climate change, the military’s influence over both technological innovation and cultural values are coalescing around a single problem for the first time in history. That influence could have environmental impacts that reach far beyond any particular solar installation or Department of Defense report.

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Cutthroat Lost and Found

As climate change and human activity fragment habitats, accelerate interbreeding, and throttle species to the brink of extinction, what are we trying to conserve? Do we know enough to tinker with evolution? This second feature in our War & Peace issue examines the conflict surrounding these issues (as well as paths to resolution) through the story of the greenback cutthroat trout, a survivor against all odds.

JD3_5426 (1)In northern Colorado’s Poudre Canyon, 30 or so men and women gathered around a fishless lake on a Friday morning in early August. A pickup truck carrying a large white tank rumbled up an old logging road lined with spruce and fir, and emerged in a clearing several yards from the lake’s edge. A state hatchery official climbed into the truck bed, opened the tank’s lids, and began scooping its contents — some 1,200 young greenback cutthroat trout — into five-gallon buckets.

A dozen people stood by, watching and whispering, while a group of researchers photographed, weighed, measured, and snipped tiny tissue samples from about 200 trouts’ fins for monitoring and genetic analysis. Around noon, scientists, wildlife managers, and conservationists among the crowd began hauling fish-filled buckets from the truck, down the muddy shore to the lake. The fish, all bred in hatcheries and none longer than six inches from snout to tail, wriggled their spotted bodies and flashed the trademark slash across their throats as they acclimated to their new home, Zimmerman Lake.

It was a historic moment. “You get a little feeling in the back of your neck, that this is the start of getting these fish back where they belong,” said Aaron Kindle, the Colorado field coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project, who pitched in on Friday. Continue reading

The Nature Conservancy’s Battle Plan: Mapping the Future

WOPA080929_D004If you’ve ever turned on the “bike routes” or “traffic” layers on a Google Map to help you figure out the best way to get somewhere, you’ve used geospatial information for planning. And if you’ve ever looked at that map and wondered why that bottleneck near the on-ramp can’t be fixed, or daydreamed about that one, missing, two-block-long bike lane that would make all the difference for your commute, you’re not far from understanding how The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) approach works.

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Editor’s Note: The War & Peace Issue

Humans have been warring over resources since we’ve had resources to war over – which is to say, forever. For as much as conflicts are cast as political or religious affairs, issues of natural resources – land, water, food, and energy – are often found at their roots. Take Syria. A five-year drought forced rural Syrians to leave their farms and seek work in the cities, laying the groundwork for tensions that escalated into its brutal civil war.

This month, we are reporting on the twin themes of war and peace. Continue reading

Rise of the Zero-Waste Zealots

Concluding our July issue is a look at the zero-waste subculture and how individual environmental action does (or does not) impact society at large. Special thanks to photographer Gregg Segal for allowing us to use his images from the series “7 Days of Garbage” to illustrate the story.

Growing up Mormon in Maryland, Beth Terry grew used to “constantly having to defend a position that might be unpopular,” she explained on a recent Friday afternoon while unpacking a week’s worth of greens, fruits, and spices purchased from a market near her home in Oakland, Calif. – a common ritual that takes unusual form in Terry’s kitchen. Instead of plastic produce bags and heavy zip-locked freezer bags, Terry uses stainless steel and glass containers.

Terry washed green beans and placed them in a stainless steel box. She shoved the box into the freezer, then arranged apples and plums in a separate bin. She poured blueberries from her cloth produce bag into a glass jar, which she tucked into the fridge. This week’s haul included a rare investment for Terry: a four-pound wheel of wax-encased carmody cheese. Sure, it might seem excessive for a family of two. But to Terry, who aims to eliminate all material waste from her lifestyle, the plastic shrink-wrap that houses smaller portions makes them off-limits. Continue reading