2 September 2013

Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park in the age of synthetic biology

Yasuní is the most biologically diverse place on Earth. But do we value more the oil it sits on top of?

By Juan Fernando Villa-Romero

Millions of years ago, proteins from early photosynthetic systems enabled the transfer of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the bodies of primitive plants that became the fossil fuels we know. Evolution followed its course. For periods of time the planet dozed under extensive layers of ice before blooming again during the geological equivalent of spring. Very few places on Earth maintained climatic stability over evolutionary time-scales, a condition that allowed life to further diversify unrestrained.

One of these places exists today as a UNESCO-designated Man and Biosphere Reserve, a relatively small geographical area in what now constitutes the Eastern territories of Ecuador in South America: the Yasuní National Park. Yasuní, which in the local language of the Huaorani people means “sacred place,” is documented to be one of the most–if not the most biologically diverse–places on Earth with world richness records for tree, amphibian, reptile and bat species that coexist with at least two human tribes living in voluntary isolation in a way that hasn’t changed much in the last thousand years.

Yasuní is the most biologically diverse place on Earth.

Things have been quite different for the rest of us. Over the last ten thousand years our forefathers collected a handful of species that today feed, heal, clothe and shelter us. During the last two hundred, we have burned carbon stored over millions of years underground to develop machines that build and think for us. And just lately, in a matter of a couple of generations, we have gathered the knowledge and technology to bend biological architecture–the flow of information from DNA to proteins with specific forms and functions, at our will. Outside Yasuní, our population held below 1 billion human beings for 11,000 of the past 12,000 years. But during the two hundred years it took us to burn fossil carbon and develop machines, we added 6 billion human beings to planet Earth. Today, about 7 billion of us share a planet with atmospheric dioxide carbon concentrations none of our forefathers have experienced. From this day forward, our species dwells in a planet that is, as a whole, unknown territory.

1964: The oil boom in Ecuador’s Oriente

Despite these record high dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, and in the name of quick and cheap wealth, we keep mining that precious carbon everywhere and anywhere it may happen to be. In Eastern Ecuador, the oil boom was inaugurated in the decade of the 1960s with promises of endless development. Promises, however, were broken; development in Eastern Ecuador, a region known as “el Oriente” (the East), where immense oil reserves and the Yasuni National Park both exist, never quite took place. Three decades later, in 1993, more than 30,000 inhabitants of the Oriente region filed suit against Chevron Corporation for pollution that included 18 billion gallons of toxic waste dumped straight into the rivers and streams in the region. In 2011, an Ecuadorian court awarded US$18.2 billion in damages to the plaintiffs, becoming the largest environmental lawsuit in history, and reflecting the extent of devastation that traditional development brings to pristine and extremely biodiverse environments. Today, oil remains one of Ecuador’s most strategically important sectors; the sale of crude petroleum, which is still extracted mostly from the Oriente region, is a vital component of Ecuador’s economy and generates about half of its income.

The Yasuni initiative failed to collect the US$3.6 billion in exchange for a moratorium on drilling. It was officially removed from consideration in August 2013.

2007-2013 The Yasuní-ITT initiative: US$3.6 billion

Despite Ecuador’s reliance on petroleum income, in 2007 the country officially introduced the Yasuní-ITT initiative, a proposal to leave 850 million barrels of crude oil from the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) fields in Yasuni National Park, about 20% of Ecuador’s proven oil reserves, untapped indefinitely in exchange of US$3.6 billion to be collected from interested parties. If extracted, Ecuador would receive US$7.2 billion for petroleum sales; if burned this volume of oil would contribute 400 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In summary, Ecuador would agree to leave oil indefinitely underground in exchange for half of what the country would make if it decided to fully exploit it.

The initiative failed to collect the specified funds and was officially removed from consideration in August 2013.

In 2008, Ecuador defaulted on its debt. The country, then, received the funding required to achieve ambitious development goals, including unprecedented investments in renewable energy, science and education, from the Chinese government. From the released funds, about US$4 billion were not classified as official debt but as “petroleum sale down-payments”. In 2012, 80% of Ecuador’s petroleum went straight to the lungs of China, where the combustion of fossil fuels has reduced life expectancy by five years, and results in increased rates of heart, lung and brain disease. Part of the oil China acquired was resold to the United States. Exactly how was Ecuador to guarantee keeping the ITT fields undeveloped in the face of urgent economic needs, and why it did not allow an extended and more throughout review of the initiative by interested parties was not detailed.

The value of Yasuní in the age of synthetic biology

In 2006, Jay Keasling from the University of California, Berkeley, engineered the metabolism of a yeast to produce a compound that occurs naturally in the bark of plants from the Artemisia genera, demonstrating we could transfer elements that confer biological elements with a specific form and function between kingdoms. Drew Endy, from Stanford University, hypothesized bacteria could behave like plants, or refineries, if programmed with the proper biological software, and so, was set on developing a database of biological components to be assembled with specific goals. In 2010, Craig Venter, a pioneer in the field of genome sequencing, developed an organism with no roots in the tree of life but rather in computers, having used them to distill essential genomic information, print that as a functional synthetic genome, and introduce it into a cell lacking biological software. The cell successfully replicated.

Oil is a vital component of Ecuador’s economy and generates about half of its income.

Almost immediately, the House Energy and Commerce Committee of the United States Congress convened a hearing about the implications of this new field, synthetic biology (or synbio), for society, technology, economy and the environment. Two years later the United States and Europe released blueprints for an economy based, in one way or another, on applied biological sciences, the bioeconomy. While the blueprints differ in scope and perspective, particularly on the role of synthetic biology and the technologies that enable it on personalized medicine, bioenergy and environmental quality, both officially embrace the potential of this knowledge to revolutionize everything.

In very general terms, living beings are computers that process environmental information according to a defined set of instructions and generate a response. Biological information flows from a sequence of DNA nucleotides to three-dimensional systems capable of self-replicating within a defined but dynamic context. The theory, thus, states that by arranging biological elements transferring information from DNA to proteins with a specific form and function, we can capture photosynthetic energy and transform it into anything, in the absence of petroleum. Fifty years after describing the molecular structure of DNA, we learnt to modify it and the context where it exists, effectively blurring the lines between computers and living organisms. Today, people are trying this in their garages, literally: living beings behaving like computers and computers learning from living beings, now it is too early to accurately detail the next 50 years of our species.

The Yasuní National Park in Ecuador is the most biologically diverse place on Earth, a collection of natural objects unrivaled by any collection of human artifacts, inhabiting a region predicted to resist, due to its geographic location, climate change. Each of the species that inhabit the Park supports a vast network of life within which information, energy and materials flow optimally and efficiently, every day and every night. Each species documents an evolutionary tale that started with life on Earth. Each species is a catalog of genes we are just learning to open and read. This knowledge, and our ability to explore it with the power of computers is at stake when we pave the jungle and drive the savages to extinction to build roads, and to extract and burn petroleum in a world already suffocating. Like illiterate men burning books to stay warm in the middle of a city in ruins, the chainsaws and torches are imminent in Yasuní National Park, and, sunk in the discussion of dollars and cents, few are looking after the library.

In a matter of a couple of generations, we have gathered the knowledge and technology to bend biological architecture.

In 1995, the Interamerican Bank calculated the monetary value of Ecuador’s biological diversity to be US$20 billion by simply multiplying the number of plant species with pharmaceutical potential by relevant royalties at the time. If we identify the genes involved in the synthesis of these compounds, should we divide the potential royalties by the number of genes? Then, how many economically important genes exist in Ecuador, and how would these considerations change the value of the country’s biological diversity? Ecuador clearly underestimates the economic potential of its unique biodiversity, but beyond mere monetary considerations, the extent of Ecuador’s biological diversity urges questioning the concept of wealth itself. In a world both assaulted and enlightened by human activity, what is more important and useful to us? The natural wealth above, or the fossil wealth below?

The petrodollar is the cog about which the worlds of economy and ecosystems articulate: since most petroleum sales throughout the world are denominated in United States dollars, and most of the world requires petroleum to satisfy its energy needs, most of the world requires dollars to acquire petroleum. Thus, petroleum is valuable as a source of energy and materials, and the US dollar due to the explicit and almost unavoidable relationship between oil extracted and dollars exchanged. If we transfer the value we assign a currency, from oil extraction and self-destruction through ecological devastation, to decoding and applying biological diversity through conservation, education and research, could we think differently and break our economy free from its addiction to fossil fuels? The value of a currency could be then measured by the natural resources the economy preserves and develops, not by the resources it destroys.

Three things are clear: one, to keep burning fossil fuels is not the smartest thing we can do right now; two, the services that a fully functioning ecosystem freely provides – climate stabilization, water purification, oxygen generation, waste reduction, disease prevention, etc.- relies on a robust and diverse network of species and is worth, globally, trillions of dollars a year, and are now at stake; and three, developing knowledge through education and research pays. The economic cost-benefit analysis of the investment that education represents, that is investment to encourage minds to fully pursue their natural curiosity with the tools of the 21st century, has a ratio in dollars of 1 to 17, which translates into an annual return of 11%. For every dollar that the United States has invested in the development of genomic sciences since 1988, the country has recovered between US$65 and US$141. No stock market can beat that.

For every dollar that the United States has invested in the development of genomic sciences since 1988, the country has recovered between US$65 and US$141. No stock market can beat that.

Finally, the stakes could not be higher. Make no mistake, climate change is upon us. Fires are ravaging, water is flooding, and we are facing unforeseeable pests. The extremely negative impacts of our current model of economic development – economic growth at the expense of ecological devastation – on the terrestrial systems that make the life we know possible are well documented. Homo sapiens means Wise Man, let’s do justice to our collective name. Think differently and break our economy free from its addiction to fossil fuels. The value of a currency should be measured by the natural resources the economy preserves and develops, not by the resources it savagely destroys.

Otherwise, consider this: life expectancy in the world is about 55 years and increasing, so crunch your numbers and prepare your kids.

The complete version of this article and supporting information can be accessed at http://libreriametagenomica.wordpress.com/in-english/.

Photos: First two: Rainforest Action Network via Flickr, last: Sara y Tzunky via Flickr.