David Lloyd Owen - O brave new world – where gene sequencing might hit the spot.
As a guest you can read up to 3 full articles before a subscription is required.
You can read a further 2 articles for free.
At the GWI Global Water Summit in Rome last month, Dr Craig Venter threw his dinner audience into a brave new world of peer-reviewed papers.
As the sun set over the Tiber, delegates heard the accidental poetry of polymer nomenclature and danced to the music of gene-sequenced time.
In ‘The Tempest’, Prospero’s cynical dismissal of Miranda’s ‘O brave new world’ as ‘’tis new to thee’ could sum up where water innovators found themselves until pretty recently. Innovation has been seen as ill-suited to a risk-averse and inherently conservative sector, and anything to do with genetically modified organisms was a definite taboo. There are, however, signs of change – in part due to the continuing pressures on funding flows, set against rising spending needs.
Microbes can have their gene sequences reconfigured to achieve specific outcomes, and one which was suggested by Dr Venter was microbial desalination, which may be viable by 2015.
We have already seen one microbial revolution, whereby extant species of bacteria are put to beneficial use, especially in the fields of sewage treatment and groundwater decontamination. If smart water is about the capture, control and deployment of information relating to the water cycle, the second microbial revolution will be about designing and assembling microorganisms which use that information to capture, control and destroy water-borne pathogens.
Thirty years ago, I was dead set against nuclear power. Twenty years ago, I felt similarly towards GMOs. Now, in the face of greater, more existential threats, I have to admit that these technologies have the potential to be forces for good. Nuclear will always be controversial, but the GMO debate is maturing, and expressions such as ‘Frankenstein Foods’ rarely resonate at the microbial level.
In nature, microbes excel at ingesting and metabolising matter and at capturing nutrients in their environment. Given that wastewater is best regarded as a resource and one that many microbes thrive in, this is likely to be the most fruitful area to start with. Nutrient fixing for optimising nutrient recovery is an obvious starting point. Then there are microbes that consume pathogens. 349Q was launched in 2009 with the aim of identifying gene sequences in pathogens so that wastewater or drinking water could be treated using batches of RNA sequenced to disrupt each pathogen’s metabolism. Little has been heard about 349Q since, but the idea was an intriguing one. The same principle applies for deactivating pharmaceuticals and other drugs present in wastewater.
It is a tough investment climate, and companies involved at the microbial end of water technology have often found the going particularly taxing. According to Cleantech group, venture capital investment into water-related enterprises totalled $988 million between 2007 and 2011, equivalent to beween 2.0% and 3.4% of total fundraising in each of those five years. I have seen too many companies that were using RNA for detecting and sourcing pollution, or removing viral and bacterial contamination, make little headway as the funding market got ever tighter post-2008. There is a lot of intellectual capital residing in garages, lofts and scattered amongst teams of laid-off specialists.
Given that 70% of our water use is in agriculture, indirect approaches also matter. GMO crops are being developed as ways to respond to agricultural challenges, especially where modified crops can thrive in salt-contaminated soils, fix nutrients rather than relying on fertilisers, and grow using less water. On a similar tangent, one of the more effective ways to lower agricultural water consumption could be the widespread use of laboratory-grown meat. While it will never be classed as free-range, this has to be an advance on ‘pink slime’.
Given the time it takes to fund innovation, develop pilot plants and commercialise innovative processes, let alone master and apply gene sequencing, 2020 seems likelier than 2015. It will be an interesting wait.