Most of what you hear about biotechnology centers around that big company down in St. Louis. (Come on, you know the one.) Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the form of crops that eventually end up as food are a hot topic.
It’s a shame that the discussion (more often heated debate) rarely gets to other aspects of biotechnology. I was recently smacked into a different line of thought when a scruffy-faced Ph.D. with a shock of blue hair and a ripped T-shirt walked into room at the convention center in Austin, Texas.
Josiah Zayner is a scientist working for NASA with a bent for, appropriately enough, thinking out there. He was conducting a session at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW) on the possibilities of biotech. It was refreshing. It was also somewhat embarrassing to be reminded how infrequently most of us who work in the food system think beyond our little window to the present or the ugly specter of not having enough food in 2050. (Yes, yes, I believe biotech will help us feed the world.)
Zayner left the current debate in the wake of his rocket to Mars and made us think about some things I had never considered. For example, astronauts on a trip to the red planet would produce some 1,500 pounds of plastic waste before their journey had barely begun. What if you could bioengineer bacteria to eat that potential debris and turn it into food, fuel or some other useful product? Scientists like Zayner are working on it.
What if you could bioengineer the bacteria living under astronauts’ arms to smell good instead of bad?
What if you could create micro organisms that would turn human waste into (one has to get beyond “yuck” to get to Mars, apparently) food or even rocket fuel?
What if you could add vitamin A to rice to keep children in Africa from losing their vision? Wait, we already have that one. Tragically, turning a blind eye to science and the potential benefits of GMOs has largely prevented us from doing nearly as much as we could on this issue.
Yes, there is much to be decided regarding biotech. We are wise to be thoughtful. We would be foolish to do anything but encourage smart guys like Josiah Zayner as they pursue the real future for this amazing and powerful technology.