March 30, 2008 -- Forget genetically modified crops – the great environmental concerns of the future should be nanomaterials, manmade viruses and biomimetic robots.
So say researchers, policymakers and environmental campaigners, who have identified 25 potential future threats to the environment in the UK, which they say researchers should focus on.
In addition to well-publicised risks such as toxic nanomaterials, the acidification of the ocean and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, the list includes some more outlandish possibilities. These include:
• Biomimetic robots that could become new invasive species.
• Experiments involving climate engineering, for instance ocean 'fertilisation' and deploying solar shields
• Increased demand for the biomass needed to make biofuel.
• Disruption to marine ecosystems caused by offshore power generation.
• Experiments to control invasive species using genetically engineered viruses.
William Sutherland, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge in the UK, led a series of horizon-scanning workshops where the threats where highlighted. He says they were convened in order to give researchers the opportunity to assess environmental threats before they become a political and social problem.
Science before policy The original inspiration for the event came from the debate over genetically modified crops. "I was struck by the fact that we were doing a lot of research into the environmental effects of GM crops after policy makers had made their decisions – it was just the wrong way around," Sutherland told New Scientist. He notes that the future supply of biofuel is already becoming a political issue because a thorough environmental assessment has yet to be carried out.
The European Union has been criticised for backing biofuels too hastily, by scientists who argue they raise food prices and threaten food security.
Offshore wind and wave power might be a solution to the growing energy crisis, but Sutherland and colleagues warn that it could also affect marine ecosystems.
And they call for research into the potential environmental impact of releasing manmade viruses. In Australia, researchers have developed a novel way of controlling the invasive red fox – a virus that infects and sterilises it – although it has not been released into the wild population.
"What happens if the virus spreads outside its target range?" asks Sutherland. "Could it sterilise other foxes? Could the virus combine with another and infect different species?"
Dodgy gizmos Some of the threats identified are more speculative, such as robots that imitate animal behaviour and microbes made from synthetic molecules. If these forms of artificial intelligence are released into the wild they might eventually behave like invasive species, the group warns.
Matt Walker, a science writer involved with the project, says the purpose of the exercise was to raise awareness. "The more into the future you try to look, the more uncertain it gets, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take such threats seriously," he told New Scientist. "It's important to look beyond the immediate well-known threats and try to predict the next great challenge to biodiversity."
Robert Full, who works on biomimetic robots at the University of California, Berkeley, says autonomous cars are likely to pose a threat before autonomous robots inspired by geckos do. "I don't think we know enough about the threats at this point to direct the research," says Full.
Sutherland's workshops focussed on the UK, but he says most of the threats apply to other parts of the world. He is convening a similar workshop in September 2008 to consider global issues.