Ecology meets technology in a mechanized planet
It goes without saying that the world as we know it is becoming increasingly infused with technology. Besides the everyday devices—computers, cell phones, cameras, cars—huge advances are being made on a daily basis at the intersection of biology and technology. Areas like biorobotics, nanotechnology, geoengineering, genetically engineered organisms and global monitoring, for example, are gaining steam.
In biorobotics, which also includes advances in medicine through nanotechnology, engineers draw on the processes of locomotion and navigation to design biologically-inspired robots (see above video), some of which have contributed to military aircraft designs. Just this week, physicists have found a way to extract water from air using lasers—a discovery that geoengineers propose could produce rain clouds.
Genetically modified organisms, such as cotton plants in India containing a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that codes for a protein toxic to insects, are being engineered to grow larger and faster and to be resistant to predators and diseases. With satellites and remote sensing, global monitoring is becoming more precise—such as NASA’s Earth Observing System, which was most recently used to track the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
One could easily argue that technology also played a role in the ecological disaster in the Gulf region, and it is a technological innovation that BP is proposing to use in an effort to mitigate the spill. According to a BBC article, the containment chamber is a 40 foot steel box—ready to be installed this week—that will be placed over the leaking pipe to siphon a projected 85% of the oil into a tanker (see below video).
As Felicia Coleman mentioned in Monday’s Q&A, we are living in a world of trade-offs. That is, if society is going to continue inventing machinery and expanding technologically on a global scale, then collaborative systems to assess, control and mitigate any potential consequences should also be taken into account.
In biotechnology, as with any emerging field, questions will arise as quickly as advancements are made. Some will be specific (what is the potential impact of nanoparticles introduced to a stream ecosystem?), while others will address the biosphere as a whole. For example, how do we sustain a world that has been so altered and influenced by human development? How can we balance the Earth’s resources with present demands for energy, water and food?
But perhaps the most notable inquiry to address is what will happen in the future because of our actions now. In other words, are we adapting to life on a mechanized planet, or are we becoming reliant on it?
The upcoming series of posts entitled “Mechanized Planet” will explore the current state of and advancements in such areas as biorobotics, geoengineering, genetically modified organisms and remote sensing. They will also describe how these areas are influencing and being influenced by ecological science. To contribute resources, suggestions, commentary or guest submissions for a particular topic in biotechnology, email Katie Kline at firstname.lastname@example.org.