Experimenting with gene-editing for clean energy

Written by By Yagana Shah, CNN London

The oil and gas industry’s growing dependence on powerful genetic engineering machinery will enable it to challenge toxic pollution and replace environmentally devastating agriculture with cannabis oil, according to new research.

Following decades of study, leading global scientists at Imperial College London hope to harness gene-editing methods — which are already used by the pharmaceutical industry to correct faulty genes and to produce new drugs — to change the destructive relationship between humanity and the ecosystem.

Developing sophisticated genetic engineering techniques for the first time, the group envisages “clean energy” built with plants, algae and animals, with everything from milk to marijuana oil enabled to enter the critical supply chain.

One of the world’s greatest ecological disasters, according to the Imperial team, is the deliberate poisoning of the oceans by massive vessels, oil spills and the over-exploitation of fisheries.

Each year, 1.3 million barrels of oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico while over 1,400 are released into the North Sea and 700 from the Democratic Republic of Congo alone.

(During their research, the team studied the case of Sablocha, a salmon that was once thought to be the world’s most environmentally invasive fish.)

With investment up by nearly 500% to $800 million in the industry in 2016 alone, perhaps the most significant issue facing the industry is encouraging the onus to develop cleaner, more efficient energy sources.

The group’s proposed power-generating techniques using the genes from plants, algae and animals will create compact and fuel-efficient engine systems, with plants to have a key role in producing carbon dioxide to build the chemical elements needed in our life-support systems.

“The project has the aim of building a global food and fuel industry based on sustainable agricultural technologies that will transform the way food and energy production is done. We’ve investigated the kind of technologies that can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, lessen our impact on the environment and meet the growing demand for food and fuel,” says Professor Pete Agnew, who leads the project.

While the fledgling industry has been encouraged by the recent lifting of state restrictions on the use of genetically modified crops, the research team recognises its limitations.

“We don’t think we’ll have the technologies available to feed all the world’s population in the next ten years. What we do have are technologies that can reduce carbon dioxide emissions and help deliver an abundance of nutritious, clean, renewable energy,” Agnew said.

The research team plans to conduct human trials of its ideas within two years, and release their results to the community in 2020.

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