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Helping Heal Mother Nature with Her Own Remedies

Leona Fitzmaurice and Karen Bankston, "Helping heal mother nature with her own remedies: Environmental biotechnology is alive and well in Wisconsin." BioIssues Vol. 5, No. 4. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center, 1994.

At first glance, environmental biotechnology may seem the newest branch of an emerging science. Compared with agricultural and medical biotechnology, environmental research and biotechnological applications are relatively recent. In reality, however, humankind has been using Mother Nature's own remedies for thousands of years to preserve the environment and heal damage done to it.

Biotechnology can be defined as the use of living organisms to make a product or drive a process. One of the earliest examples of environmental biotechnology is composting, the process whereby bacteria, fungi, and other organisms break down organic matter and return nutrients to the soil. The practice of composting originated nearly simultaneously with agriculture, i.e., during the period when humankind turned from hunting and gathering food to tilling fields and growing crops. Thus, environmental biotechnology and agricultural biotechnology developed during the same time continuum.

Why, then, do we still tend to think of environmental biotechnology as something new? After all, the human impact on the environment is as old as our kind: We leave our imprint as we clear the land for homes and farming; harvest fuels, minerals, and other natural resources; manufacture finished goods from raw materials; and travel from one place to another. As a nation and as a world, we have become increasingly aware of the consequences of fouling our planet.

Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring," shocked society awake to the destructive power of pesticides entering the food chain. Her warning echoed a long history of similar concerns expressed by environmentalists and conservationist's, including Wisconsin's Aldo Leopold, the great American naturalist and wildlife biologist, who promoted conservation and the creation of wilderness areas in the 1930s and '40s.

Remediation, prevention, and risk assessment are all disciplines that have grown from the seminal work of Carson, Leopold, and other naturalists. For example, the scientific understanding of the effects of such pollutants as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) began with studies of wild bird populations and eggshell thinning in the '60s and early '70s. And integrated pest management has been around for about 15 years.

What is new is modern environmental biotechnology - and its newness is a natural result of the advent in the 1970s of recombinant DNA technologies and genetic engineering. Environmental biotechnology and modern biotechnology have been interwoven ever since. For example, one of the landmarks in modern biotechnology occurred in 1980 when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the award of a patent to Ananda Chakrabarty for a genetically modified bacterium capable of breaking down crude oil. Chakrabarty's bacterium was designed in 1972; since that date, thousands of useful microbes have been isolated.

Challenges being addressed by modern environmental biotechnology range from the search for microbes that will reduce acid rain by removing sulfur from power plant coal to the biological production of biodegradable plastics. As society struggles with the dilemma of protecting the environment while simultaneously promoting economic development, environmental biotechnology is playing a key role in attaining a healthy balance between what are often competing interests.

Taking a Global Perspective

The earth has been affected by pollutants for thousands of years. Pollutants enter the environment and are broken down by naturally occurring organisms and events. This global process has been working less and less well as a direct result of the increased production of pollutants by human activity. Humans can take steps to heal this process.

From a historical perspective, environmental biotechnology can be characterized by three phases:

  1. growing societal awareness of the damage being suffered by the environment as it was exposed to increased pollution and the nearly frantic attempts to clean up the mess (remedial actions including treatment and bioremediation),

  2. increasingly sophisticated approaches to assess environmental damage (monitoring and risk assessment), and

  3. conscious and deliberate attempts to reduce significantly the entry of pollutants into the environment (prevention).

This history is paralleled in our everyday experience of recycling household waste. First we recycled nothing and read about overflowing landfills. Then we recycled newspapers and a few other items while purchasing products manufactured from recycled paper - and still read about overflowing landfills. Now we recycle numerous items - and read manufacturer's labels touting the reduced environmental impact of the packaging materials they use.

Go to next story: Rio Declaration on Environment and Development

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