The Campaign Spot

Obama’s Algae Fuel: Hopefully Not an Eco-Disaster

By the way, Obama’s envisioned algae fuels will be an enormous benefit to American society, provided they don’t trigger an environmental apocalypse along the way:

As a hypothetical example of a worst case scenario, a newly engineered type of high-yielding blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) could be grown in thousands of acres of outdoor ponds for biofuels. Algae grown in open ponds will be engineered to be very hardy and they could be more competitive than native strains. The new type of engineered algae might spread to natural habitats — to lakes, rivers, and estuaries, where it might flourish and displace other species. In some cases, this could result in algal blooms that suffocate fish and release toxic chemicals into the environment. So it would be a bad decision to go ahead with this kind of application. This is just hypothetical example, but it illustrates what we want to avoid.

The potential for rapid evolutionary change is especially high in microbes. Some will die out but others may thrive and evolve. GEOs that can exchange genes with related lineages or other species could evolve even faster — allowing synthetic genes to persist in hybrid descendants. So, we cannot assume that all domesticated or supposedly “suicidal” GEOs are unable to persist in the environment.

This is from the testimony of Prof. Allison A. Snow, from the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University, a member of President Obama’s Commission on the Study of Bioethics.

Obviously, risk is a part of almost any kind of effort to make the world a better place, and many of the fears of genetically modified food have proven hyperbolic. Other scientists argue that a genetically modified algae would be unlikely to be unable to thrive in the wilderness. (A lengthy New York Times article on the controversy can be found here.) But it is fascinating that this professor, a person that Obama’s administration turns to on guidance of these matters, uses algae biofuel in her hypothetical worst-case scenario.


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