I count myself among those back-nine science-watchers who see both the threat and the promise of our blossoming talents for engineering in a realm that once, not long ago, was the domain of nature and genetic “random chance.” Among us old-schoolers, a species was a species, and we’d just as well be content to leave such boundaries alone, if you young whipper-snappers know what’s good for ye!

When all along, the academic construct of species has, in the background of the lay-public eye, been eroding now for a few decades (since I left the hallowed halls.) Genes are not forever siloed within the originator of those DNA chunks. In fact, we’re hard pressed to say WHO many genes might claim for their first appearance.

Turns out, while we’ve known for a long while that symbiosis of a most intimate kind can happen (like lichens’ relationship between an alga and a fungus) it now turns out (in the example below–but I’m betting we’ll start finding it far more common than we ever thought) that chunks of DNA become appropriated across lines far wider than species #1 to species #2 in the same genus.

I offer you the case of Elysia chloroctica–a beautiful green leaf-like sea slug that has taken on plant DNA so as to refurbish its chloroplast. Well, not its own original equipment, but borrowed long ago from an alga, and never returned.

This may not amaze all like it does me. The fact that we got bits of our biological explanation wrong about how things work is no great surprise. The gene jumping is so common also is rather shocking.

Now, we have to decide how much of this re-engineering we think we are smart enough to take over, in light of quite a number of recent OOPS’s in the rule books. And we CAN take over. WIth BioBricks. Any idiot can build a new creature, for good or ill. Hold onto your hats, the era of engineered life is soon upon (and among) us. I see it: GREEN means more of a person than their political leanings. It’s getting easier and easier to be green, Kermit.

And full well knowing that links are not generally going to be followed by  readers, I add them for my own convenience if, someday, I want to follow the breadcrumbs back to where a line of exploration began. I will add another free tidbit for future avoidance of wasted time: Don’t even bother with Google Images for pictures of Elysia chloroctica. You get a page full of junk. BING image search is vastly superior. (Click links to compare. No extra charge. My pleasure.)

How horizontal gene transfer shakes up evolution — Aeon

This sea slug steals plant genes to live like a leaf – The WaPo

Harvard scholars explore transforming biology into an engineering discipline | Harvard Magazine

Published by fred

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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