Our lives and our futures depend upon past, current, and future advances in science & technology. Historically, these advances have come at a slow pace, slow and simple enough for many people to grasp them and figure out how these changes will affect their lives. Scientific discoveries such as the electron, genetics, the age of the Earth, and technologies from the steam engine to the hand-held computer have changed and improved our lives and where we see ourselves in the Universe.
But as scientists continue to shine light into the dark corners of the world in search of basic truths and their application to our lives, they are sometimes met with resistance. And as research accelerates and discoveries are made at a rapid pace, it can seem like an insurmountable deluge of information.
Change is an important part of this process. New ideas, approaches, and discoveries change the way we look at things. New technologies change the way we do things. And fear of change is often a major reason why the culture pushes back against science and its achievements. But there are many more factors involved, such as perceived benefits, whether these changes require altering deep-seated emotional or philosophical factors, and campaigns to support or oppose them. But one final important factor is knowledge – it is easy to fear something if you do not understand it.
There are many contentious areas of science today, some are more culturally contentious than scientific, but to put together a short list, we have:
- Stem Cell Research
- Global Warming and Climate Change
- Genetic Engineering
What do these topics have in common?
The first and most obvious is that they are complicated. Think about piecing together the evolution of billions of organisms from trillions of dead organisms with only millions of dollars in your budget – and at the same time trying to figure out how to break it down simply for those who aren’t very science-savvy to begin with? How about trying to explain how climate scientists tease apart the tiny details of slow changes in a very large, uncontrollable climate system? Or the ways that pieces of DNA are pieced together and spliced into a cell to produce a protein that alters a plant’s metabolism to produce more of a specific vitamin? It practically takes a Ph.D. just to begin to understand these topics!
Another common element is that they are new. (Well, evolution has been around for almost 150 years, but it is still new to many people and keeps getting re-newed as new discoveries are made, or teaching it gets challenged in public schools…) Stem Cell research holds promise but hasn’t produced any therapies yet, Nanotechnology is already here but most people don’t know how it affects their lives, and genetic engineering has only been around for a couple decades. Like a fall lineup on cable TV, how are we to know what’s good and what isn’t when we’ve only just started watching?
Third, many of these are tied up in politics. Save perhaps this presidential election, opposing evolution has been politically-expedient, and although there have been improvements in the last couple of years, political motivations underlie attempts to undermine the acceptance of climate change. Stem Cell research has been picked up in recent political discussions as a lightning-rod to motivate certain groups of voters, and genetic engineering also comes up, particularly in international politics.
Fourth, every single one of these affects how we view ourselves, at a deep philosophical level. The idea that human beings evolved from single-celled organisms and were not dumped here as-is says a lot about who we are as a species. Considerations about when a single-celled organism becomes a person matter both in how we define ourselves as persons but also whether we can take some of those cells to study or treat diseases that affect us. The idea that human beings are affecting the climate of their home planet in a negative way has profound implications for our future, and approaching our world from a microscopic scale makes you wonder how we can think to comprehend our common-sense view of the world when at scales of nanometers there can be so much going on?Finally, we have the technology to know how we have been changing the basic biology of life itself, and can more precisely direct changes in new directions, at a level never before realized. If we could even directly change our own genetics, what are we then?
Sometimes the staunchest opposition to the developments in these fields can be traced to unwillingness to consider, or re-consider some of these basic philosophical elements of our existence.
Fifth, they are all important. there’s no need to explain the significance of climate change, and perhaps not the potential medical benefits coming out of stem cell research. But the others may not be so obvious. Evolution matters a great deal in medicine – understanding how our species evolved to resist diseases, or became prone to other maladies, can directly benefit from discoveries about our own evolution. Knowing how viruses and bacterial pathogens evolve in response to our defenses and our medicines is of even greater importance. Nanotechnology may benefit manufacturing, medicine, building stronger materials, faster computers, and many more areas. Genetic engineering in agriculture can help alleviate hunger, malnutrition, reduce dependence on pesticides, and help agriculture become more sustainable. In other areas it may have untold more benefits.
Sixth, as with all new things, there are risks involved. If global warming science is faulty, there could be economic hardship for little to no reason, or if nanotechnology gets out of hand the surface of the world could be turned into grey goo. (Just kidding) In the case of genetic engineering, what unforeseen consequences could there be from changing the genetics of the plants that we grow, or even ourselves? The potential risks involved in these topics contribute to their controversial nature. But in many of these cases, many of the objections raised have been answered, and risks are comparable or even favorable to the status quo? Sometimes the risk of inaction can be worse than the risks of action.
With new internet communications technologies such as blogs, podcasts, and more, science has gained a new way to reach people. Many scientist bloggers have joined together to form group blogs that have become quite successful in fostering discussion:
The Panda’s Thumb is a world-class resource for discussing new research in evolutionary biology and responding to anti-evolutionary political movements. From creationist quote-mines to new fossils, for some science enthusiasts it is a daily read.
A group of climate scientists also banded together to form Real Climate, where climate myths are flayed and temperature graphs are made readable. Any and all questions about global warming research can be asked there. Recently, a cadre of medical doctors joined together to respond to medical myths, ‘medicine’ that could practically be called mythological, and discuss other issues related to medicine. They may only talk a little about stem cell research, but Science Based Medicine is another great read. Another site that is worthy of note isn’t so much a group blog as it is a collective of science blogs, where many of the above topics are discussed. Check out ScienceBlogs.com
But one topic is conspicuously missing from the larger discussion – Genetic Engineering. It gets discussed briefly here or there, but until today there has been no equivalent home for talking about this expanding area of research and development. Until today, that is.
Biofortified is a new group blog devoted to educating the public about genetic engineering, and discussing how it intersects many aspects of our lives. From politics to cultural issues, from genes that affect farmers to those that affect your lunch, there’s going to be a lot to talk about. On the science side, there’s a lot more than genetic engineering itself to discuss, and we’ve got a small but growing group of professors and graduate students who are eager to bring the bring the science behind what’s on your dinner table into your dinnertime conversation.
The name Biofortified comes from biofortification, which is when the bioavailable nutritional content of a food crop is enhanced. Literally, strengthened through biology. Like fortifying foods with vitamins, biofortification through breeding or genetic engineering can allow the plants to produce the nutrients that people need on their own. This can be good for people in industrialized nations, but a boon for developing countries. It is also a topic that several of our authors find personally very interesting!
One by one, our bloggers will introduce themselves to you and then we’ll get this blog going. Over time, we will add more scientists to our ranks, but to start with we have four bloggers. We’ll let them tell you more about themselves, but here they are by name:
- Karl Haro von Mogel
- Anastasia Bodnar
- Pamela Ronald, Ph.D.
- David Tribe, Ph.D.
We will also invite guest experts to write about topics that they are close to, and if you want to write something too, do let us know! We hope that you will stick around and fortify your brains with some food for thought on this increasingly important and expanding aspect of agriculture. Welcome to Biofortified!