FUTURE

I've been listening to the MP3 downloads from Massive Change Radio recently and it's been very enlightening. The one today though, illustrates a problem I've been thinking about a lot, having the courage to do what you say in science.

The interview is with Janine Benyus who wrote a book about biomimicry. Biomimetics has the potential to be one of those developments that comes from nowhere and really revolutionizes things. Everyone is paying attention to genetic engineering and nanotech but biomimicry (the copying of biological processes to do things we currently do with force and machines) is a discipline that can use both of those sciences to really do interesting things. Ms. Benyus talks about copying the process that an abalone shell uses to make super-hard shells to create ceramic type materials rather than using massive pressures and ovens to make ceramics like we do now. I agree wholeheartedly with this. The arrogance created by our successes in manufacturing and industrialization has led us away from copying nature but we have the tools and know-how to go back in that direction. The problem is that she doesn't have the courage of her convictions, so to speak.

The interviewer asked her about a Canadian company who is doing really pioneering transgenic work on getting goats to produce spider silk for use as "BioSteel" they call it. This is an amazing development. Both Ms. Benyus and the interviewer, however, call it freakish and Benyus, at least, seems very against it. She wants to take the "recipe" for spider silk and find a way to make it ourselves. My issue with that is why go to the trouble? She talks about how the natural world has had 4 billion years of R&D to come up with spider silk and that's why we should use it but she doesn't want us to use the factories developed by nature as well. If the animals can already do it better than we can, why not let them do the heavy lifting? "Because having goats produce spider silk is gross" is not an answer. Almost all insulin used by diabetics today (and for the past 30 years almost) is produced by genetically modified bacteria. Is that gross? People need insulin and we have a way of producing it easily. The old way was slaughtering millions of animals to extract the insulin from their carcasses. The bacteria way is better, even though you might not relish the thought of injecting something that came from a seething vat of bacteria into your arm.

We have to have the courage to do things the better way. Someone might feel weird about putting spider genes into goats until the light and cheap bullet-proof vest made from the silk saves their live or the life of someone they care about. Then it's just a material and damn where it came from. If we're going to copy nature, and we absolutely should, we need to realize that we can also improve upon the system. Nature is not an R&D lab. There is no one directing the research done. The reason goats don't produce spider silk is that they have no need for it in the field. Spiders have a need for it, so it developed over time. There's nothing inherent to nature that says goats should not produce strong silk proteins, they just haven't needed it in the past. Now (maybe just as an interim step, who knows) we need them to produce spider silk proteins. We need cows to produce more vitamin packed milk. We need wheat that grows in places it couldn't grow before. These are needs we have and we have a way to do it. We just have to have the courage to do it.