FIELD TEST: Radical Adventures in Future Farming
AN ATOMIC DANCE AT A PLANETARY SCALE
The thing that always shocks me about DNA, when I find those rare moments to contemplate it, is the power of the genome as an algorithm. A sealed bag of flour containing a few beetle eggs can turn into a sealed bag of beetles, given enough time. No matter goes in, no matter comes out. Instead, what happens is a fine-tuned and rapid atomic-scale rearrangement of everything in the bag, taking it from passive dead white powder to a dynamic, living population of organisms. This atomic dance is choreographed by DNA.
Strands of DNA have an equal capacity to transform the planet Earth, the bag of flour in which we all live. Indeed, they already have. The transformation started 3.5 billion years ago when the autocatalytic and self-replicating chemistry of DNA was first invented, and continues unabated. The far-reaching consequences of this process are even visible from space, from hundreds of light-years away: true planetary engineering.
We humans have been engaged in our own attempts at planetary engineering for ten thousand years or more. The invention of farming and the subsequent development of sophisticated agricultural practices led to a boom in the human population, a new system of political economy, and then directly to our modern technical civilisation. In their time, the proto-cells of 3.5 billion years ago and the photosynthetic cyanobacteria of 2.5 billion years ago could lay claim to being the single most influential species on the planet. That dubious honour is now ours, and the Anthropocene is well under way.
So what’s different this time around? Why is this transformation any more or less dangerous, unpredictable, or powerful than those which came before? Is it our ability to plan ahead? Surely the first farmers knew all about planning. Is it the scale of our ambitions? The architects of the Industrial Revolution had enough ambition for all future generations put together. I suggest that there are two differences: first, human-driven climate change is a confirmed scientific fact, whereas it was something we could only have guessed at earlier. The idea of irreversible tipping points in global geochemical cycles is frightening, and renders us temporarily powerless. Second, we now know about DNA, and we have started to understand its algorithmic nature. Along with this understanding, we have gained the remarkable capacity to manipulate DNA.
The transformational power of DNA is juxtaposed with our seeming powerlessness in the face of climate change. These two ingredients, one at the atomic scale and the other at the planetary scale, collide when we consider the future of farming. Where will we live? How will we feed ourselves? FIELD TEST invites us to contemplate these perhaps overwhelming questions, through the work of the scientists and farmers who are creating this future, and through the eyes of the artists who give it meaning.
Mukund Thattai obtained a B.A. in physics from Cornell University in 1999, and a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004. Since 2004 he has been on the faculty at the National Centre for Biological Sciences. He has been an Intermediate Fellow of the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance, and is now a member of the Simons Centre for the Study of Living Machines. Dr. Thattai has previously made contributions in the area of synthetic biology, a field which attempts to combine genes into biological circuits. He is currently studying the two-billion-year-old origins of complex eukaryotic cells. Dr. Thattai is deeply involved in public engagement efforts and art/science collaborations, working with conceptual artists and theatre practitioners to explore the practice of biology and its impact on society.
Image above is from one of the exhibits in FIELD TEST “INSECT VR” by Shannon Olsson and Pavan Kumar Kaushik of Naturalist-Inspired Chemical Ecology Lab (NICE) at NCBS.