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Ron Patton | May 2, 2019
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Extraterrestrial life, has over time has become a familiar science-fiction trope, now it has become a matter of serious discussion, a “risk factor,” a “scenario.”

It is interesting how extraterrestrial biology has gone from sci-fi fairytale to a serious scientific endeavor.

This upsets a lot of people. People out of fear will tell you that all of the news about aliens is a deception or that the fallen angels are stealing my soul and that the aliens demand that we worship them.

They may not want us to worship them but it appears that scientists are developing ways that we can live with them, either here on earth, or somewhere else.

Following a string of remarkable discoveries over the past two decades, the idea of alien life is not as far-fetched as it used to seem.

While life is a special kind of complex chemistry, the elements involved are nothing special: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and so on are among the most abundant elements in the universe. Complex organic chemistry is surprisingly common.

Amino acids, just like those that make up every protein in our bodies, have been found in the tails of comets. There are other organic compounds in Martian soil.

As you can probably guess this has nothing to do with fallen angels or the Nephilim or blue avian alien beings under your bed.

However, the building blocks that could sustain extraterrestrial life in space are now being synthesized which will eventually make the earth’s environment more alien friendly.

A couple of months ago, I was very curious about a project that NASA was funding where scientists have developed a new kind of DNA-like structure that can store and transmit information. They claim that this development will help them understand the complexities of alien DNA.

Of course, I was interested in exploring this further because I wanted to understand, what alien DNA do they need to understand if we have nothing to compare it to?

Does this indicate that they have an idea about what is in an “alien” environment? Have they somehow discovered alien DNA in asteroids and have enough building blocks to construct or synthesize alien DNA prototypes?

There is always that horror story of how we have retrieved alien bodies from Roswell or from some other crash and that scientists have has alien DNA all along and have been experimenting with complex models.

NASA officially has stated that the breakthrough discovery suggests there might be alternative, unimagined forms of DNA-based life as we know it on Earth. Alien life on other worlds might be built using different molecular systems of the kind the NASA scientists have synthesized, they have suggested.

The new molecular system will allow scientists searching for alien life to recalibrate what exactly they are actually looking for and where it could exist.

This is a pretty huge breakthrough but it certainly sends all kinds of messages about the possibility of terraforming other planets and the real worry about how scientists want to change the earth in order to incorporate new species and new plants.

We have all heard of genetically modified organisms and we know about genetically modified plants but this goes beyond that.

Genetically modified organisms today usually have just one engineered gene. Scientists now want to create organisms with whole new gene clusters.

The field is evolving so rapidly that even scientists working in it don’t agree on a definition, but at its core, synthetic biology involves bringing engineering principles to biotechnology. It’s an approach meant, ultimately, to make it easier for scientists to design, test, and build living parts and systems, even entire genomes.

Synthetic biology, often called “synbio,” is an emerging application of genetic modification that involves the practice of changing an organism such as yeast or algae so that it makes a substance it is not able to make naturally. The process requires artificially created DNA that mimics naturally occurring DNA in other organisms.

A number of substances produced by synthetic biology are currently being used in consumer products, including food, cosmetics, fragrances, pharmaceutical products, detergents, and soaps. Because synthetic biology is so new, no legal framework exists to regulate it.

Advocates for synthetic biology claim that its products are “just like” the naturally occurring products. This is scientifically questionable because the synbio product is not exactly the same as the product derived from natural sources. The products of synthetic biology are produced with genetic engineering that creates DNA not found in nature.

If genetic sequencing is about reading DNA, and genetic engineering as we know it is about copying, cutting and pasting it, synthetic biology is about writing and programming new DNA with two main goals: create genetic machines from scratch and gain new insights about how life works.

The possibilities are quite bizarre.

For example, there is now a startup company called, Muufri that is working on an animal-free milk product; a crowd-funded group of “biohackers” collaborating in community labs in the Bay Area aim to create a vegan cheese; and the Swiss company, Evolva, is using synthetic biology to develop saffron, vanillin, and stevia.

Other companies, like Solazyme, are engineering microalgae to produce algal “butter,” protein-rich flour, and a vegan protein. And in academia, research is underway for clusters of synthesized genes to eventually be inserted directly into plants or into microbes in soil and roots that affect plant growth.

To some, it is a frightening future that has synthesized DNA coming to the farm, market, and dinner table.

The environmental blog, Grist, has called synthetic biology “the next front in the GMO war.”

Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization that views genetically modified crops as “a direct extension of chemical agriculture,” calls synbio an “extreme form” of genetic engineering.

Recently, there was an article that was published by Raytheon that praises their innovative work in the synbio industry.

Scientists at Raytheon want to use synthetic biology to turn something ordinary, like a stalk of corn, into a sensor that secretly warns of chemical agents in the air. This means that an ear of corn can be synthesized to hear and smell changes in the environment.

Raytheon believes that there is potential to use crops like these in a combat zone. Specially engineered crops and other living things can react to something in the environment, such as harmful chemical or biological agents, then change their appearance slightly as a secret signal to those who need to know.

It is quite odd that Raytheon is using corn for synbio research. If you remember in the film “X-Files: Fight the Future” Fox Mulder and Dana Scully find a peculiar cornfield in the middle of the desert. Later we find that the corn has been modified to contain an alien pathogen.

There’s no way around it: Synthetic biology means you’re altering nature. It requires attributing everything about an organism back to something in its cellular structure, then treating those cells like computer chips, inserting circuits and essentially reprogramming until you get the desired effect.

It sounds weird but that is the future – full of weird synthetic cornography.

Synthetic biology starts with using computer-aided design tools to draw circuits and simulate their response to certain situations, then analyzing the data and making adjustments along the way. It’s a little less exciting than putting things in test tubes – but no less important.

These moves have been in the works for some time and believe it or not they are legal.

In fact, the ethics of such experiments came to the forefront when a company called “Glowing Plants” started a kickstarter funding campaign.

Glowing Plants aimed at producing “sustainable natural lighting” through synthetic biology, which exposed loopholes in laws about creating synbio plants and organisms.

The company laid out a plan to derive DNA from fireflies, modify it to work in a flowering plant related to mustard, order the reprogrammed sequence from a company that laser-prints DNA, coat it onto metal particles, and inject it into seeds using a device called a gene gun. And they promised to distribute some 600,000 of these seeds to supporters.

FDA regulation was not a problem because the plant was not meant to be eaten, and the EPA said the project would be a matter for the USDA. But because the genes are transferred via gene-gun (a technique developed after guidelines were established in the late 1980s), the plant falls outside the USDA’s purview.

As a spokesperson for the agency later told the journal Nature, “Regarding synthetic biologics, if they do not pose a plant risk, APHIS [the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] does not regulate it.

While creating glowing plants may seem like a fun little hobby for synthetic biologists – there are some serious reasons for finding new ways to synthetically produce corn and other crops.

We have been warned that a food crisis looming, as farmers in the United States report that income has plummeted. If farmers can no longer afford to grow the food we all buy in the stores.

Of course, extreme weather has played a role in creating scarcity and crop shortages.

We are now being told to expect not only a major price hike on the food that is available but a shortage of whole foods as well.

The personal income of farmers in the U.S. declined by an annualized $11.8 billion between January and March, the biggest 1st quarter drop in 3 years, Bloomberg reported, citing Commerce Department data released Monday. The drop in income is being driven primarily by the fallout from President Trump’s trade disputes, a nosedive in commodity prices, and record flooding in the Midwest. As a result, farmer bankruptcies in the Midwest have shot up to levels the U.S. hasn’t seen for approximately a decade.

This makes the prospect of a food crisis very real. Although reports from the government claim that progress in the trade war can be described as “cautiously optimistic,” little can be done for the farmers already struggling. According to a report by Axios, America’s farmers are living through the worst economic crisis in almost 30 years and there is no end in sight.

Government interference in the food market is having a much heavier effect on farmers than it has on others. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes, rural America is being “undermined by powerful economic forces that nobody knows how to stop.” The booming economy the mainstream media continues to relentlessly drone on about isn’t touching all corners of the country, and farmers, in particular, are facing a very different economic reality than the economic growth and low unemployment rate that Americans are experiencing elsewhere.

We all eat, whether you’re a vegan or carnivore, the destruction of American’s farmers will play a huge role in the cost of food and the ability to find or even be able to afford food that isn’t laced with antibiotics, chemicals, pesticides, or GMO.

That is the biggest worry is that eventually we may all have to be subjected to eating GMO crops and even synthetic vegetables and lab raised beef and chicken.

This deviation in farming could soon spill over and affect every single one of us.

The technocrats believe that the global food system is ripe for redesign.

By 2050, we can expect at least two billion additional eaters, as well as heightened demand for feed crops to support growing appetites for meat and dairy.

Scientists and agriculturist are saying that with the planet facing scarcity we cannot rely on pure nature to satisfy the need for vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy.

Synbio approaches could, in time, reprogram the most basic interactions between plants and their environment.

Synthetic biology builds on decades of advances in molecular biology, systems biology, and biotechnology.

In time, scientists could take genes and make specific mutations, but it was still nature’s foundation.

The bottom line is that scientists justify synthetic biology because they feel that we no longer have to be stuck with what nature has on offer.

We are now able to create things from scratch.

GMO crops today have been engineered to tolerate pests, herbicides, disease, or drought.

With the tools of synbio, an organism could be programmed to have a genetic trait that could “deal with the problem, and then go away – it does not have to stick around and be a burden on agriculture.

The accelerating pace of this work opens a door for new risks. According to Pamela Silver, professor of biochemistry and systems biology at Harvard Medical School, however, synthetic biology is like many other technologies in the realm of dual-use research. “There’s the good side and the potential dark side.”

There have been plenty of science fiction and horror films dealing with the potential dark side of killer plants.

Consider, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Day of the Triffids or even Little Shop of Horrors. These all involve seemingly passive plants that turn into an enemy of mankind.

They warn us of what happens when mankind tinkers with the natural order of things.

Making a plant an apex predator could happen through synthetic biology.

No matter how many oaths, declarations, safety inspections, tripwires, laws, and policies are developed and enforced; none will dissolve the inherent risk in interactions between nature, technology, and humans.

Even in an environment where there is a common agreement of intent, there are and will be many uncertainties associated with developing synthetic life. It is indeed possible that an individual or group could take advantage of accessible tools and open-source information and use them for malicious purposes in secret.

There was a film that was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007 called “Strange Culture.” It is certainly a plant horror film but the terrifying thing is that the events in the film actually happened.

The film examines the case of artist and professor Steve Kurtz, a member of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). The work of Kurtz and other CAE members dealt with genetically modified food and other issues of science and public policy.

After his wife, Hope, died of heart failure, paramedics arrived and became suspicious when they noticed Petri dishes and other scientific equipment related to Kurtz’s art in his home. They summoned the FBI, who detained Kurtz within hours on suspicion of bioterrorism.

They accused Kurtz of creating a genetically modified plant that could kill humans. Many people believe that Kurtz was arrested based on his politics and that what he did was not illegal.

What he did was not illegal, however, the culture of biohackers — their tools, spaces, and techniques are becoming policy itself. The makeup of the community and its technological and ethical limits are inseparable from a system of rules. Embedded within the tools of open science is the importance of monitoring processes and results.

The system should be transparent and as a result of the botched Kurtz case, many scientists have decided to become garage biologists that hack in secret.

This is what is called, citizen science.

The whole idea of citizen science is centered around crowdsourced data and on building on the breakthroughs of others as they happen: transparency and accountability are inherent. An effective regulatory framework for citizen science synbio should be able to absorb any new elements that enter the field in real time. However, sustaining such a responsive model will require constant conversation, collaboration and a roadmap that ensure ethical practices.

Scientists all over the world are creating virus-resistant pigs, heat-tolerant cattle and fatter, more muscular lambs, a big question looms: Will regulation, safety concerns, and public skepticism prevent these advances from becoming anything more than fascinating laboratory experiments, or will the animals transform agriculture and the food supply.

So far, gene-editing tools have jump-started research worldwide, creating more than 300 pigs, cattle, sheep and goats. Now, proponents of the field say the United States is at a make-or-break moment when government action over the next year could determine whether any gene-edited food animals make it to market.

Cows are now being gene edited so they do not grow horns – avoiding a grisly procedure in the dairy industry called “disbudding,” when calves’ horns are burned or cut off.

For farmers seeking to maximize beef production designing, they are now able to design males or other bovines that are female but fatten up like males.

Males gain weight more efficiently than females. For scientists, successful births would add to a menagerie of gene-edited animals that demonstrate the power of the technology beyond the lab, where their use is mostly routine and uncontroversial.

Tinkering with the DNA of animals faces a far more uncertain future. The regulatory process for getting animals approved is more complex and treats the edited DNA as a veterinary drug — a difference that animal scientists argue will effectively kill their field by preventing innovations that could make raising livestock more sustainable, more efficient or more humane. Many advocates and ethicists agree that the current oversight system is a poor fit but think that scientists and industry underestimate potential safety concerns.

For now, gene-edited, synbio, or replicated clone plants will soon be in the grocery store, there are also GMO plants that can sustain chemical bombardment that have been proven to be less healthy for people.

We can also anticipate that new life forms may be created that have never existed in nature through the use of conventional and perhaps artificially arranged codons (nucleotide sequences that manage protein synthesis). These are likely to make use of the conventional machinery of mitotic cell reproduction and of conventional ribosomes, creating proteins through RNA or XNA interpretation.

There will be increasing pressures to continue this research. We may need to accelerate the evolution of terrestrial life forms, for example, including Homo sapiens, so that they carry traits and capabilities needed for life in space or even on our own changing planet.

This may be the reason that NASA and Raytheon are interested in alien DNA.

Maybe they won’t have to change terrestrial life forms – the weird plants we will be eating will be quite capable of creating mutated species that are prepared for the clandestine alien invasion.

Written by Ron Patton

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