More Science Talk
Steve Mirsky: This Scientific American podcast is brought to you by Audible.com, your source for audiobooks and more. Audible.com features 100,000 titles including science books you’ve been meaning to check out, like Kevin Dutton’s The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success, and Richard Panek’s The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality. Right now, Audible.com is offering a free audiobook and a one-month trial membership to the Scientific American audience. For details, go to Audible.com/sciam. Steve Mirsky here, welcome back for part 2 of my conversation with conservation biologist Kent Redford about the conference How Will Synthetic Biology and Conservation Shape the Future of Nature? taking place at Clair College in Cambridge, England, April 9th to the 11th. Stay tuned at the conclusion for a completely unrelated discussion of armadillos.
Steve Mirsky: So much of this conversation to so far has been about species, and that is the thing that attracts people a lot to this issue of de-extinction and bringing back species and what have you, but I think it’s going to be - in my - if I were to guess, it would be a fairly minor part of the conversation that needs to take place between conservation and synthetic biology. Let me give you a few examples of the things that may come out of synthetic biology techniques under development now, and I am not a synthetic biologist and I do not know if these things will succeed when applied at the scale that will be necessary in the situation I’m going to describe. But just if you'll give me the - if you just give me the right to assume that they're going to be able to scale up their techniques and it’s going to be deployed at commercially significant scales, and I want to describe two or three situations that I think are ones that are critical for us in the conservation world to be thinking about.
First, artemisinin is a chemical which comes from the sweet wormwood plant, which is a small annual plant grown commercially mostly in China and Vietnam, and from which the drug or the basis for the drug which is used to treat malaria originates, artemisinin. There is a difficulty in getting an adequate supply of these plants to be able to make the ACT drugs which is a cocktail of artemisinin and other things, that is proving to be the most effective malarial treatment. I just read last week that a company has opened in France to commercially produce artemisinin from algal cells. That is, they have changed the DNA in algae to produce - so that the algal cell produces the same drug as was produced, as is produced from sweet wormwood. There is the potential, then, to produce enough of this drug to adequately deliver, if it can be delivered to the right people, and if the malaria mosquitoes don’t evolve a resistance, there is a potential, with many ifs, to address the major source of mortality and morbidity in sub-Saharan Africa. What's going to happen to land-use patterns when women can control family size and girls can be educated? We have no idea. But it is the potential to be a major game change, a really major disruptive technology for many of the models that are produced for how human population growth and land use is going to be - is going to roll out into the future. Second case is palm oil, so -
Steve Mirsky: I’m sorry, I missed the connection between the empowerment of women and the malarial -
Kent Redford: Sure, if you no longer - so malaria is the major source of death and loss of ability to thrive.
Steve Mirsky: So you're saying if they survive because they have the drug.
Kent Redford: So if you know your children are going to survive, and the lesson from other countries is that women have fewer children, they work to control family size because they don’t have to have nine to get two to survive, and it’s under those circumstances that in other settings, admittedly, there has been this pattern of decreased family size, and frequently associated with changing in labor patterns, movement to the city, as you’ve seen in many areas of southeast Asia. So there are a lot of ifs between where we are now and where I’m saying we might go, and I’m not a person who knows whether those ifs can be carried through. But I think that we ought to be aware of this as a potential scenario.
So the second one then, if I may, is palm oil. So palm oil comes from the nuts of the oil palm, which has been increasing tremendously in the area under plantations in many very important tropical forest areas. That is, forest is being cut down so that the oil palms can be planted, so that this crop can be produced, this product. This is a major probably in southeast Asia, it’s growing as a problem in west Africa, and it’s starting to become a bit of a problem in Latin America. There is the ability now, I have read, to produce an oil which is chemically superior to palm oil from I believe it’s algal cells. I’m not sure, could be bacterial cells. So if that could be scaled up, then there is the potential to be producing palm oil or its chemical equivalent, without oil palms, and what is going to happen to the area that is currently under oil palm plantations? Now, admittedly, there's going to need to be a lot of area used to produce these - this synthetic palm oil, and I don't know how much area or where those would be.
Steve Mirsky: But it would presumably be a lot less area than you need to grow palm forests.
Kent Redford: One would imagine, but I have no way of knowing that for sure. But it may be in a different part of the world, et cetera. So right now, there are I don't know, hundreds of thousands if not millions of hectares under oil palm plantation. What's going to happen to that land? We ought to be thinking about that. We ought to be imagining a world in which that land came up for sale and could be rehabilitated for conservation lands. I don't know. But I don't want this to be yet another thing that hits us in the back of the head as we're looking out the back of the bus.
Steve Mirsky: And so that's what this conference in Cambridge is going to start doing, is having these two communities talk to each other and try to anticipate what some of the things that happen could be, based on whatever is going to happen anyway, and which could be driven by a better communication between the two parties.
Kent Redford: A better communication and an attempt on our part to instill some of our values into the lives and decisions made by synthetic biologists. To change the path that those technologies may take to make them less environmentally harmful, if not, in fact, environmentally beneficial. That, to me - if we can start that conversation at that meeting, I'll be a happy guy.
Steve Mirsky: Going to start a journal? Conservation, synthetic biology?
Kent Redford: No, I’m - I don't want to start any journals, I just want to start conversations, and there are a lot of very talented people coming to this meeting, and part of my point is to share this passion for the conversation with many other people, particularly young people, and because they're going to have to live in this world much longer than I am, and they are very much interested in these new technologies. And I am very much interested in trying to get this conversation to take place, not only amongst more senior, advanced people, but in the people who are going to be carrying these technologies and the burden of conservation forward into the next century.
Steve Mirsky: We've been talking with conservation biologist Kent Redford. The conference How Will Synthetic Biology and Conservation Shape the Future of Nature? begins April 9th at Clair College in Cambridge, England. Redford is a co-author of a paper in the journal PLOS Biology, that frames the issues the conference will address. It’s titled Synthetic Biology and Conservation of Nature: Wicked Problems and Wicked Solutions. We'll be right back after this word from Kerri Smith at the Nature podcast.
Kerri Smith: On the Nature podcast this week, what would happen to you if you fell into a black hole, Greenland’s heat wave last summer and how North America grabbed some islands to make its mountains. All that and more at Nature.com/nature/podcast.
Steve Mirsky: So before I was recording on the record, I asked Redford to talk so I could set levels on the recorder. Here's the three-minute, unexpected conversation we had about armadillos. Talk for me just a little bit.
Kent Redford: Armadillos are my favorite animals.
Steve Mirsky: Armadillos, you know William Jacobs at Einstein?
Kent Redford: No. Is he a leprosy armadillo person?
Steve Mirsky: Yeah, exactly [laughter].
Kent Redford: People think all there is to armadillos is leprosy. They don’t know the whole recipe side that you need to know about armadillos.
Steve Mirsky: Recipe, you mean cooking them?
Kent Redford: Yeah.
Steve Mirsky: Give me a good armadillo recipe.
Kent Redford: Well, first I'll tell you one of my most recent favorite facts. I went and looked up the database of airplane animal strikes.
Steve Mirsky: Airplane animal strikes.
Kent Redford: Yes.
Steve Mirsky: And there's an armadillo?
Kent Redford: And most of them are Canadian geese and gulls of one sort, but if you scroll all the way down to the bottom, there are three records of airplane armadillo strikes. I’m just loving it. This poor armadillo is flying home, minding his own business, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere comes a jet.
Steve Mirsky: What, was the armadillo flying a little Cessna?
Kent Redford: No, these - I'm sure they were armadillos running across some Florida runway, but anyway.
Steve Mirsky: Just wanted to verify, these are ground-based, armadillo-airplane interactions. [Laughter]
Kent Redford: Well, I don't know there may be somebody who threw one up in the air, look Fred, catch this one, and then it hit the Cessna as it went by. No, so it - so the recipes depend on which species of armadillo, because -
Steve Mirsky: How many do we have in the US?
Kent Redford: Well, there's one in the US, but there are 21 species overall, and some of them are - you have to remove scent glands and you have to soak them longer, unlike ours which is - basically you can treat it like veal.
Steve Mirsky: I bet if you don’t take the scent glands out, it doesn’t taste so good.
Kent Redford: The one here, it doesn’t matter.
Steve Mirsky: But in some of the other ones.
Kent Redford: But the other ones, you absolutely have to, and in fact, you can tell in Brazil, because when you're looking for road kill armadillos, there are no road kill armadillos of dasypus, the species that’s here, because if you hit one, you'll pick it up and cook it. But these other ones that you have to treat more carefully, they tend to be the ones you find on the side of the road because nobody wants to take them home and deal with them.
Steve Mirsky: So road kid - road kill armadillos are like mushrooms, you’ve got to really know what you're doing before you eat the ones that you find.
Kent Redford: Well, they're like mushrooms in the sense that if you don’t know what you're doing, you probably shouldn’t consume it.
Steve Mirsky: Right, I see them in Florida.
Kent Redford: Stop, if they're fresh, take them home. Cumin and garlic is a very good way to cook them.
Steve Mirsky: Grilled, broiled or -
Kent Redford: Yeah, you could do them by - it’s basically I like - treat them like chicken in the sense that you brown them in oil hot, and then you add a little more liquid and the spices and put a top on and basically cook them, and it doesn’t take very long.
Steve Mirsky: Do you mind if I use this audio, or would you prefer I don’t, about the armadillos?
Kent Redford: No, it’s fine. My PhD dissertation has an appendix with recipes for [laughter] armadillos and anteaters in it, so it’s in the public record.
Steve Mirsky: That's it for this episode. Get your science news at our website, www.ScientificAmerican.com, where you can checkout David Biello’s coverage of the recent De-Extinction Conference, it’s titled, Efforts to Resuscitate an Extinct Species May Spawn a New Era of the Hybrid, and follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the website. Our Twitter name is @sciam. For Scientific American’s Science Talk, I’m Steve Mirsky, thanks for clicking on us.
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Redford is a co-author of a paper in the journal PLoS Biology [Kent H. Redford, William Adams, and Georgina M. Mace, Synthetic Biology and Conservation of Nature: Wicked Problems and Wicked Solutions] that frames the issues the conference will begin to address.