Synthetic life and biodiversity

Written by Dr Chris Gyngell

Last year, the first truly novel synthetic life form was created. The Minimal Cell created by the Venter Lab, contains the smallest genome of any known independent organism.[1] While the first synthetic microbe was created in 2010, that was simply a like for like synthetic copy of the genome of an existing bacterium.  Nothing like the Minimal Cell exists in nature.

This great advance in synthetic biology comes at a time where natural life forms are being manipulated in ways never seen before.  The CRISPR gene editing system has been used to create hulk-like dogs, malaria proof mosquitoes, drought resistant wheat and hornless cows. The list of CRISPR-altered animals grows by the month. Continue reading

Cross Post: Our political beliefs predict how we feel about climate change

Written by Prof Neil Levy

Originally published on The Conversation

The man who called global warming a fabrication invented by the Chinese to make US manufacturing less competitive is now president-elect of the US. His followers expect him to withdraw the US from the Paris climate change agreement and eliminate the environmental regulations introduced by his predecessor.

But recently, Donald Trump has shown a few signs that he might be open to being convinced that climate change is a real problem requiring action. In discussion with journalists at the New York Times, he expressed the view that there is “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change, adding that he’s keeping an open mind about it. Continue reading

Guest Post: Epigenetics: Barriers to the translation of scientific knowledge into public policies

Written by Charles Dupras and Vardit Ravitsky

Bioethics Programs, School of Public Health, University of Montreal


Environmental epigenetics is a rising field of scientific research that has been receiving much attention. It explores how exposure to various physical and social environments (e.g. pollution or social adversity) affects gene expression and, eventually, our health. Environmental epigenetics can sometimes explain why some of us carry increased risks of developing specific diseases. It provides activists a powerful vocabulary to promote environmental awareness and social justice. This new vocabulary, which allows us to discuss the consequences of disparities at the molecular level, has been enthusiastically mobilized as an effective way of stimulating political will for promoting public health preventive strategies. Continue reading

Cross Post: What do sugar and climate change have in common? Misplaced scepticism of the science

Written by Professor Neil Levy, Senior Research Fellow, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation

Erosion of the case against sugar. Shutterstock

Why do we think that climate sceptics are irrational? A major reason is that almost none of them have any genuine expertise in climate science (most have no scientific expertise at all), yet they’re confident that they know better than the scientists. Science is hard. Seeing patterns in noisy data requires statistical expertise, for instance. Climate data is very noisy: we shouldn’t rely on common sense to analyse it. We are instead forced to use the assessment of experts. Continue reading

Sustainable Fish Week at Ghent University

This week is ‘Sustainable Fish Week’ at Ghent University in Belgium. All fish on the university restaurants’ menus come from sustainable fisheries or fish farms (with practices that can be maintained without reducing the ability of the target fish to maintain its population and without threatening other species within the ecosystem, for example, by removing their food source, accidentally catching and killing them, or damaging their habitat). Tuna sandwiches will be taken off the menu and a sustainable alternative will be provided instead. Those who take their meal at a university restaurant will receive a free ‘fish guide’ with helpful information for making responsible fish choices at home. Those with strong stomachs may also enjoy the opportunity to taste jellyfish at the university restaurants. The message is that, if we continue to eat unsustainable fish, then soon jellyfish will be the only alternative to fish left on the menu.

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We ARE lords of the planet – that’s the problem

The lord of the manor is not a typical peasant, and doesn’t have the same responsibilities. Nowadays, it is quite fashionable to see humans as part of the natural world, part of a cycle of life, dependent on a nature that could eradicate us in an instant if it chose to. The truth is far less comforting.

We are the lords of the planet. Some have made the entertaining claim that we are not even a very successful species, that technological intelligence isn’t evolutionarily very useful. Yes, viruses and bacteria are wildly successful, cockroaches and beetles have the numbers and the resilience, and all our client species – species that profit from human existence, such as dogs, rats, cattle, wheat and rice – are doing well. We are not the Earth’s only evolutionary success story. But we are a success; we have a population of over 7 billion, dwarfing that of any other wild large mammal. We are reshaping the world on ever larger scales, changing the appearance of the whole planet (rarely for the better, of course). We’ve depopulated the oceans and lit up the sky at night. We’ve put men on the moon, and already have started building space stations, thus claiming an empty but huge ecological niche.

Yes, of course, if the whole natural system turned against us, if our agriculture collapsed or the Earth’s climate disintegrated, we couldn’t ride that out (though some day soon, we could probably even survive that). But the fact that the lord of the manor couldn’t survive if all the peasants revolted at once didn’t make him any less a lord, and them more than peasants.

I understand why people would wish for us to be part of the natural cycle; for if that were the case, then conservation and sustainability would be in our enlightened self-interest. And we could certainly make great improvements in how we log, mine and fish, thinking for the long term rather than the short. But a world in which humans followed their selfish but enlightened self interest, kept their own resources sustainable, their air breathable and their water drinkable, is still a world in which most natural species would be annihilated, and anything of not explicit worth for humans was destroyed. Human self-interest won’t save much of the planet.

Instead, we are the lord of the manor, with no possibility of shrugging that off or of calling a council of villagers to devolve power and decision-making. We need to explicitly decide what gets saved and what dies, what the limits of our exploitation will be, and what costs we are prepared to pay for that. Nature is now our responsibility.

Water, food or energy: we won’t lack them

The world is full of problems. Pollution is a problem. The destruction of the coral reefs, the eradication of the rain forests, the mass extinction of animal species are problems, and tragedies. Loss of biodiversity is a problem. Global warming is a problem. Poverty and the unequal distribution of resources are major problems.

But lack of basic resources isn’t a problem. We’ll have enough food, water and energy for the whole human race for the forseable future, at reasonable costs. Take a worse-case scenario for all three areas, and let’s look at the figures.

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Pulp Friction in Tasmania: when is a little dioxin to much dioxin?

When is a little dioxin too much dioxin?

Dioxin is a persistent organic pollutant (POP) that accumulates in the food chain and is highly toxic to living systems. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants commits signatories to ‘reduce or where feasible, eliminate the production and environmental release’ of dioxin.

So we know that dioxin is not a good thing to be releasing into the environment. And we also know that particular human activities, such as the smelting process that produces certain metals and chlorine bleaching of wood pulp in the paper industry produce dioxin. The question is when is it ‘feasible’ to eliminate the production and environmental release of dioxin? Continue reading

Will the protection of animals be left to corporations?

There is a pair of interesting stories connected to animal ethics in the media at the moment. One is an exposé of bad practices that persist in many British abattoirs — a mix of cruelty and sloppiness that is against the rules but happens regardless. The other is an exposé on the bad effects of EU fishery laws. In order to stop overfishing, boats are not allowed to return to harbour with more than a certain amount of fish, and must have none at all of certain species.  The problem is that this leads to perverse behaviour among the fishing boats: the amount of fish caught is always a bit random and they want to get as many as possible, so they often catch too many and dump the excess overboard (which are typically dead by that point). We hear that this results in ‘as much as two-thirds of the fish caught being thrown back in the water’ (and I’d love to know what the overall average is).

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