Biological Alchemy

The primary focus of this experimental farming blog is adaptation to the unfolding decline of industrialised civilisation. The concentrated resources that allowed industrial technology of the last few centuries are on track to reach their inevitable limits in coming generations.

That is the foundation of my interest in finding ways to sustain human life and culture that are independent of industrial inputs and infrastructure. The only truly renewable resources at our disposal are human culture and biotechnology. I have previously written about the power of hybridisation for developing locally adapted organisms (https://zeroinputagriculture.wordpress.com/2020/06/13/origin-of-the-speciousness/) but there are limitations to that approach.

Modern biotechnology relies on resource intensive laboratories and supercomputers to analyse vast quantities of DNA sequences that no human could comprehend. The reductionist mindset aims to discover individual genes that control specific traits, then move them into new organisms, one at a time, to achieve the desired result. The resulting single gene traits tend to be fragile in real ecosystems. For example pathogens rapidly overcome single gene resistance traits (see Raoul Robinson’s “Return to Resistance”).

My opinion is that this approach is doomed to fail even without the looming loss of high industrial technology. Biological systems are irreducibly complex, a chaotic mess of intersecting systems and a vast number of unknowns. We will never reach the stage where we can design a genetic modification fully knowing the consequences to the whole organism, let alone the ecosystem. In the end we are merely copying the random mutation and selection paradigm that nature uses, despite our fancy our tools and the complex stories about genes and proteins.

So my big idea for a post-industrial future is this: rather than relying on a small number of labs and workers trying to do transgenesis one gene at a time, what if instead we mastered low cost, low tech approaches that could be put into the hands of millions of individual growers?

Transgenesis (also known as horizontal gene transfer) is the process by which functional DNA moves between different organisms. Microorganisms are supremely adept at the process. Bacteria have multiple mechanisms for exchanging DNA, so much so that classifying them into species is a somewhat futile effort. The process happens less frequently for multicellular organisms, but there are numerous examples of functional DNA moving between just about every type of living thing, often with spectacular consequences. For example the evolution of mammals became possible due to the insertion of a viral protein which became integral in the placenta. The human genome project revealed up to a hundred genes that potentially came from bacteria in relatively recent evolutionary history (though the precise number is disputed).

A range of low tech approaches exist that everyday people could potentially experiment with today. For bacteria the process is as simple as using microbial cultures to perform particular functions, giving them access to random sources for novel genetics that may be useful under stressful conditions. An amateur baker mixing sourdough cultures and picking the best outcome would be an example. The use of bacteriophage viruses to control persistent bacterial infections is another promising technique for a future where synthetic antibiotics become unavailable.

Multicellular organisms are generally more resistant to transgenesis since novel DNA easily disrupts their complexity. Plants however are the easier option to work with. It has long been known that grafting can induce heritable changes in the offspring. It has been proven that chloroplasts, mitochondria and other heritable genetic elements can occasionally be transferred whenever plants are brought into intimate contact. Plant tissues also contain a wide variety of microbial endosymbionts that may also be exchanged during grafting.

The chances of trangenesis can be increased using a technique called mentor grafting. The ideal conditions seem to occur when a newly germinated seedling is grafted onto a mature rootstock. The developing leaves are removed from the seedling as it grows, forcing a larger amount of sap to be transported from the rootstock into the graft, presumably increasing the chance that some mobile elements flow into it and are incorporated. Young seedlings seem to go through a stage of genetic malleability, likely a time when epigenetic states are optimised for the conditions the seedling encounters. Mentor grafting has been shown to transfer heritable traits between plant species in completely unrelated plant families (such as mung beans grafted onto sweet potatoes), provided a functional graft union can be formed.

The limiting step in this technique is the formation of a functional graft that allows transmission of heritable elements, which then relies on access to high quality blades to produce the necessary cuts, and is limited to combination of compatible species which can form stable graft unions. One possible way around these limits would be to harness the power of parasitic plants to form the connection. Parasitic plants grow structures which tap directly into the sap vessels of plants and often engage in transgenesis with their hosts. Dodder (Cuscuta species) is a parasitic twining vine which has an extremely wide range of potential hosts. Perhaps in the future parasitic plants could themselves be selectively bred to connect the phloem vessels of two otherwise incompatible plant species, which are then manipulated as in the mentor grafting method to encourage the transfer of heritable elements.

Animal transgenesis is more challenging but still potentially accessible in a post-industrial future. Luckily there is one obvious possibility- the humble sperm cell. Sperm will take up and incorporate free DNA into their genome (primitive plants like ferns could also be useful targets for transgenesis since they also use naked sperm during sexual reproduction). If protective proteins in the surrounding seminal fluid are removed with a simple buffer wash, then transgensis happens even more readily. DNA can be extracted from a wide variety of sources with a series of simple buffers and centrifugation, then mechanically fragmented into the ideal size range for incorporation into sperm cells. 

Any single experiment using these techniques is unlikely to achieve a transgenesis event, and when it does happen it isn’t likely to create a dramatic useful improvement in functional traits. But that won’t matter if the technique is being practiced routinely by every post-industrial farmer as a side project to production. Pre-industrial farms did not separate the breeding from the production of goods and they arguably achieved much more meaningful improvements in crops and livestock than later rationalist/reductionist approaches during the industrial era. And history has shown that human being love to dream and gamble on hitting the jackpot.

When important advances are made in biological systems, nurtured inside curious and reverent cultures, they will be investigated, explored and shared, meaning that lucky accidents would be turned into world changing events. The foundation of civilisation came from chance hybridisation and transgenesis events, events that could be deliberately reproduced on an unprecedented scale.

Concerns about the unpredictable consequences of such a breeding program are understandable, but nature has been doing random transgenesis for billions of years and will continue to do so, with or without us. The post-industrial future will have plenty of plagues and crop failures either way. We just have to ask ourselves if humans want to join the card table, pick up a hand and try our luck.

During the last year I took a partial hiatus from farm work. In that time I have been writing hard science fiction that explores a distant future where post-industrial biological technology forms the basis of a new civilisation. The project has taken the form of four novellas (under the umbrella title “Our Vitreous Womb”) that are on track to be published sometime in 2023. If you are interested in being a beta reader get in touch (zeroinputagriculture@gmail.com). If you haven’t done beta-reading before it is pretty simple- all I need is your honest responses to the story, namely where you were bored, confused, unconvinced or especially happy (so I don’t accidentally rewrite something that already works). Female readers are especially useful since most of my main characters are of that persuasion and some go through a lot of issues surrounding pregnancy and motherhood.

Early Microscope Images of Sperm Cells (1750) from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle du Roy.

2 thoughts on “Biological Alchemy

  1. Oloton is a landrace maize that grows in Oaxaca, Mexico. It can supply itself with atmospheric Nitrogen via a sugary mucus production from aerial roots and associated microbes ( burkholderia ) that fix nitrogen.
    https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.2006352
    This is my first year trying to grow some in the garden. Started Oloton and my standard 80 day yellow dent at the same time.The dent has already tasseled and corn is fully developed but the Oloton is still growing taller and getting close to 15feet tall and shows no sign of tasseling.It does grow these long aerial roots at nodes up a foot above the ground but not much mucus yet.
    So how about growing plants that can promote mucus and learn how best to promote beneficial microbial and (fungal?) associations.

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    1. These kind of plant-microbe symbiotic reactions are much more common than people realise, but without high tech labs they mostly go unnoticed. An amateur grower can tell what really matters though- namely which of the dozen diverse varieties that I planted perform better overall. Hope you have luck with your Oloton maize- tropical varieties tend to need really long growing seasons to mature so you might struggle to get it to mature if you are in a more temperate zone. And once you get oloton completing its life cycle getting it to hybridise with other shorter season varieties could be tricky.

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