John Kelly (L) and Cecil Forsberg (R) with genetically engineered pigs called Enviropigs, Canada.

Enviropigs are genetically engineered to excrete low levels of phosphorus.Credit: Jim Ross/NYT/Redux/eyevine

Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined — and Redefined — Nature Beth Shapiro Basic (2021)

Pigs need phosphorus in their diet. But most of the phosphorus in their grain feed is in the form of phytic acid, which they cannot digest. As a result, they excrete it into the environment, badly polluting the watersheds around pig farms and, farther afield, causing oceanic dead zones. Farmers can add a costly enzyme to the feed to help the animals break down phytic acid, but this often gets destroyed in the feed mix before the pigs can use it.

Enter Enviropig. Researchers inserted two genes, one from a strain of the bacterium Escherichia coli and one from a mouse, into a pig genome to enable the animal to produce the enzyme in its saliva. These farmyard chimaeras can’t breathe fire, but they can excrete up to 65% less phosphorus than normal pigs — without the need for costly supplements.

We’ve made a mess of the planet with our meddling. Now, thanks to biotechnology, we have tools — witness Enviropig — to repair it. Should we use them? Molecular biologist Beth Shapiro thinks so. For instance, we could engineer species’ genomes “to help them adapt to drier soils, more acidic oceans, and more polluted streams”; to create ‘gene drives’, systems that override natural selection in invasive species to wipe them out; and even to resurrect extinct species. Synthetic biology could help to solve some of our biggest problems, from hunger to the climate crisis, and look after other species, too. We are the planet’s caretakers, Shapiro argues in her book Life as We Made It, and “it’s time to embrace this role”.

Her expansive survey of the hopes and fears — and the hypes and fails — of genetic manipulation is an enjoyable tour of ‘impossible’ species created to solve pressing human problems. We visit hornless cattle, flavour-saving tomatoes, golden rice, malarial mosquitoes gene-edited to spread sterility, yeast genetically engineered to produce a synthetic ‘blood’ for tasty veggie burgers, endangered ferrets cloned to help save the species from extinction, and more.

Shapiro looks over the horizon to possibilities scientists are working towards — from the recreation of extinct mammoths to the common crops that have been engineered to store more carbon in their roots, helping to combat climate change.

Her enthusiasm doesn’t blind her to the pitfalls and ethical dilemmas of synthetic biology. She provides thoughtful accounts of hubristic endeavours that have gone wrong. A lack of transparency and public consultation — sometimes simply due to naivety — has damaged the field and enabled conspiracy theorists and anti-genetic-modification extremists to dominate the political narrative and spread disinformation on risks for decades. Now, she says, “if we want enough food to feed 9 or 10 billion people as well as breathable air, drinkable water, and biodiverse habitats, then we need more control over evolution” — we need to direct it.

Shapiro is calling for greater acceptance of genetic modification, with a clearer and less hostile route through the regulatory framework. No one has been allowed to try an Enviropig. And that’s the problem: synthetic biology’s potential is huge, but only a handful of creations have ever made it out of the laboratory. Golden rice has been under development since the 1990s, yet it couldn’t be used anywhere until this July, when the Philippines became the first country to approve it for planting. Whether farmers do so remains to be seen.

To some degree, the argument against synthetic biology is irrelevant. We have been creating new life through unnatural means for decades. Cattle are routinely bred using artificial insemination and embryo transfer, enabling a cow to produce as many as ten calves a year instead of just one, which can be lifesaving in parts of the world that suffer from food insecurity, Shapiro writes. And, of course, humanity’s long quest to tame and improve the natural world for our survival and profit goes back millennia.

The cautionary tale is that, in many cases, it was this quest that caused today’s biggest environmental problems. For instance, oceanic dead zones are the result of humans creating (through breeding) a domestic version of wild boar, and keeping hundreds of millions of them in artificial landscapes (farms) while relying on the biosphere to deal with the resultant effluent.

Fully one-third of the book documents our prehistoric modifications to the environment, following the evolution of humans and the extinction of megafauna through a combination of climate change and human impacts. Shapiro, who works on ancient DNA, personalizes this familiar story with her own research anecdotes. She focuses on her pet study subject, the American bison, and its near-misses with extinction. The latest reprieve came courtesy of conservation measures rolled out by ex-hunter and former US president Theodore Roosevelt. The animals that had once numbered in the tens of millions bounced back from a surviving population of fewer than 300 at the beginning of the twentieth century to more than 500,000 today.

Shapiro’s point, throughout the book, is that we’ve always meddled with nature; the answer is not to stop meddling, but to meddle better. She builds a convincing case, despite the occasional troubling assertion, such as that “there are more of us today than we can feed using existing technologies”, with which many would take issue. However, there is no doubt that synthetic biology has the potential to help solve some of our biggest global problems. With this clear-eyed account of its humanitarian potential, Shapiro has done the field a great service.