Saturday at the World Science Festival Brisbane

Another busy day has come to an end here on South Bank!

While on Friday I just went to events straight after each other, I had a little more breathing room on Saturday. I got to learn about how we’re planning to feed the world’s growing population in the face of changing climate and society and get into the science and ethics of CRISPR gene-editing in the afternoon, all while exploring Street Science, stargazing and the Queensland Museum in-between!

 

Feeding the World: the Big and Small Solutions

How can we provide food security for a growing population? Image sourced from WSFB website

If global population is going to reach 9-10 billion by 2050, how do we ensure food security, or even how do we achieve that globally today? This turned into a discussion that focussed on science communication and education surrounding organic and GMO foods because the large proportion of the population who consumes food don’t understand what’s up with these terms.

It’s hard to convince people that certified organic isn’t so great- as it uses nearly twice as much land for the same yield, is recalled for food poisoning risk 2-10 times more frequently than other crops, can be less nutritious due to ban on fertilisers and can still use some chemicals. It’s even harder to try and claim that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are safe- you can throw all the studies you like at people showing no adverse health effects, showing increased crop yield and higher nutritional value, while using less water and being better for the land, but people still won’t listen because of the societal perception that GMOs are bad.

The panel made it fairly clear that GMOs are the future of food security. Firstly because they can be engineered to be more nutritious, such as is the case with Golden Rice which is actively combating Vitamin A deficiency with great success. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we are seeing an increasing trend of rising global temperature. The world currently is 1 degree Celsius warmer than it was in pre-industrial times. Unfortunately, our major crops were largely adapted to that cooler temperature, and are now growing above their optimum temperatures, or being faced with a greater incidence of extreme weather events.

But hope is not lost! Obviously, some crops naturally grow in warmer areas, and we can actually take some of their genes and insert them into our standard crops (using techniques such as CRISPR) and improve their tolerance to heat and reduce need of water and other things. So GMOs are looking like the way we’re going!

Communication comes into informing the general public of what GMOs are and why they are safe to use. The panel stressed that people tended to be more positive in their perception of GMO safety once they had more information about what GMOs actually are.

 

 

CRISPR: the Modern Creation Story

What is CRISPR and what is its future in science? Image sourced from WSFB website

I’ve heard a lot about CRISPR this weekend, and it finally got its own event!

The panel included even Virginijus Šiksnyš, one of the pioneers of CRISPR technology, which was fascinating to hear what he had to say. He’s actually not so focussed on developing CRISPR as a human tool, but instead he’s very interested in its role in bacteria. CRISPR was first discovered in bacteria and is their anti-viral defence. Today there is also research going into using CRISPR to delete antibiotic resistant genes from superbugs, and that would be cool!

They touched on the controversy that arose late last year around the Chinese CRISPR babies who had been gene-edited to give natural HIV immunity as embryos. The panel warned that CRISPR is still not a perfect tool, and could have accidentally affected other areas of the genome as well. This risk is vitally important because it doesn’t just affect the one baby who was edited, it also affects all their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and everyone else in their family because they pass their genes on. That means that if there was a problem, many people who had never given consent for their genes to be edited would have an edited copy.

Also, while CRISPR sounds like a magic fix-all tool, it’s not there yet. Researchers are doing a very good job of editing lab-grown cells, but a living, multi-cellular organism poses many more difficulties because of the large number of cells. But the entire CRISPR-Cas9 system was only developed in 2013, so we still have a lot longer to work on it!

 

 

I hope you enjoyed some of this snapshot into the WSFB on Saturday. I also got to explore the Queensland Museum, attend Street Science (and try a VR experience) and it was a great day! And there was this awesome 117,612-brick LEGO model of Australia’s newest icebreaker ship!

 


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