Program Four: "Creators of the Future"

A New Age (Part 10 of 10)

Explore the future of microbes and how they can improve the quality of life on Earth through genetic engineering, bioremediation and electronics.



{Title: A New Age}

[Drumming and Singing]

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: This is the village of Choonahmeenah in Zimbabwe, south eastern Africa. There has been no rain for many weeks. The village's crops of corn, and millet have failed. The only staple left is cassava, its starchy, edible tubers safe underground, protected from the scorching sun. Victor Masona is a Zimbabwean plant biologist.

{Sounds of distant talking.}

Scientist, Victor Masona: Cassava is the only standing crop. When we dug up a few tubers, I mean, it was like everybody was going for them, even before they were cooked, which means there is evidence of hunger. Everyone is hungry.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: Cassava has brought Masona to this village. The plant is eaten every day by five hundred million people in Africa, and around the world. Westerners seldom encounter it, except in tapioca pudding, but here, it is the difference between survival and starvation. {Sounds of distant talking.} When something goes wrong with this crop, there's nothing left to fall back on. And something is wrong.

Scientist, Victor Masona: So, this is the African cassava mosaic virus. You know, it's a disease that affects cassava, and you can see it by the crinkling of the leaves. You know, there's a mosaic on the leaves. All, all the shoots that come out have got the same disease. So you can actually spread the disease by propagating cuttings from this plant. It can also be spread by white flies sucking on this plant, and then they go and suck onto the next plant, and that way they transmit the virus from one plant to another.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: Masona's collaborator is plant biologist Ian Robertson of the University of Zimbabwe.

Scientist, Ian Robertson: Throughout Africa, this material is dug out of the ground. They see these symptoms, but they don't know it's the virus. So they'll break off pieces, and they'll pass them to their relatives. And they'll plant them, but they'll plant them with the virus in the stems, so when the thing grows, it'll be full of virus, even fuller than this. And the difference between this plant and this plant, is that this one will give you at least thirty tons per hectare, and this one will only give you six, or five, or four, or two.

Scientist, Ian Robertson: The villain is the tiniest of all microbes a virus. Viruses are parasites. They enter animal, and plant cells, and use their victims' biological machinery to reproduce. Viruses are difficult to fight. Pesticides could help defeat this virus by eradicating its insect carrier, the white fly. But chemical treatments are too expensive, and also might contaminate the water supply. Victor Masona uses another line of attack, one that will genetically alter the cassava plants.

Scientist, Victor Masona: Our work involves the genetic transformation of cassava for virus resistance. What this means is that we're trying to introduce genes into cassava. We hope, that at the end of the day, we will have genetically transformed cassava which is resistant to African cassava mosaic virus.

Scientist, Ian Robertson: If you get the gene in, then we can produce for them Victor's kind of stuff, which is going to be virus resistant. Then we begin to solve the problem. We have hopes within the next year or two, to have virus resistant cassava, for the whole of Africa. And that's to hundred million peasants that depend on it, for their livelihood. That's the reason why we need Victor, to learn how to put a gene in, and that isn't easy.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: Masona obtained a grant to pursue his experiments at the International Laboratory for Tropical Agriculture Biotechnology in La Jolla, California. He fights one microbe, the cassava mosaic virus, with another microbe called an agrobacterium. Agrobacteria routinely pass their genes into plant cells. In a test tube, masona mixes a solution of agrobacteria, and genes from the virus. An electric current punches holes in the agrobacteria. The mosaic virus genes enter. The agrobacteria then transfer the viral genes to cassava plant cells.

Scientist, Victor Masona: You are trying to vaccinate the plant. So we are putting a gene from the virus into the plant so it becomes part of the plant.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: Masona gives the plant just enough of the virus so it can defend itself when the real virus attacks.

Scientist, Victor Masona: And the agrobacterium transfers the gene to the cassava cells, and then we take the cells, culture them, and grow them into plants.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: After five months of careful nurturing, Victor has a finished product a generation of genetically altered cassava plants. The next step is to field test the transgenic plants in Zimbabwe's climate, with Zimbabwe's farmers, among Zimbabwe's white fly population. {Sounds of chickens clucking, and man laughing} Ian Robertson dreams of the day when Masona's plants will thrive throughout Africa.

Scientist, Ian Robertson: I'll go through all this procedure of multiplying in the field, and in three years' time, we'll have two hundred thousand for the next batch of people who need it. Then they'll get thirty tons per hectare every year. And their cousins will get it, and their friends will get it, so suddenly we'll have thirty tons a year, more or less permanently.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: But it's not quite that simple. Genetic engineering is a powerful new technology. {Sounds of distant talking.} Its long term effects are hard to predict. Zimbabwe's leaders are cautious. They're drafting regulations for the testing of transgenic plants. Masona cannot bring his transformed cassava into the country until the regulations are in place.

Scientist, Victor Masona: It can be very frustrating, that the plants are sitting in my lab in California. I cannot proceed with the testing, and the introduction of genetically engineered cassava if the regulations that guide this sort of introductions are not in place. So, the people are hungry, but there's something that could help the situation, and yet I'm not able to bring it here because I'm not allowed to do so.

Scientist, Ian Robertson: Biotech holds out the promise of enormous power. We can manipulate crops, animals, and even people. That's a dangerous power, so we need decent people to make the choices.

{There is then singing with classical music, and then music of a choir singing.}

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: Scientists like Masona, are sometimes accused of toying dangerously with mother nature, of trying to play god.

Scientist, Victor Masona: I don't think I'm playing god. I think, if god, would even be happy about that situation because our aims are to to help alleviate the problem of disease in cassava, in this case, by obtaining crops that can be used by very desperate people, and I don't think that is bad. {More singing of the choir.} To you, that plants, or crops can also suffer diseases. My research involves trying to put things into the crop, so that, or into the plant, so that it doesn't suffer from disease.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: Masona hopes he will soon be permitted to test his cassava plants in Zimbabwe. If they prove resistant to the cassava mosaic virus, a young biologist's manipulation of the power of microbes could nourish hundreds of millions of people. {More choir singing.}

{Title: Industrial Strength Microbes}

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: The great age of machines has multiplied our powers, but a price has been paid. The federal government's three hundred and ten square mile Savannah River Site in South Carolina, is one of the most polluted tracts of land in the United States. People can't live here. Microbes can. They routinely adapt to contaminants that would sicken, or kill us. Methanotrophs, bacteria found in soil nearly everywhere, survive by eating natural gas, or methane. What if we could expand their diet? Terry Hazen is a specialist in bioremediation, the use of bacteria like methanotrophs, to clean up contamination.

Scientist, Terry Hazen: How can we take those microbes, and really utilize their extreme abilities to biodegrade material, and direct it towards specific pollutants that are found in the water, and the soil, and even in garbage?

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: Microbes survive by taking in nutrients, and degrading them, or breaking them down, with powerful chemicals they manufacture called enzymes. In our own digestive tract, enzymes produced by microbes that live there, help us digest our food. At the Savannah River Site, radioactive materials for America's nuclear weapons were made for forty years. This polluted the landscape. Microbes and their enzymes, may have the power to clean it up.

Unknown guard: Oh, seventeen. You're okay. All right.

Scientist, Terry Hazen: When the Savannah River Site was first built back in the early's fifties, they started a process here where they used a lot of solvents. They stored that in those tanks. And then, periodically, they would release it through a pipe system underground, which was quite leaky. And so, a lot of the contaminants leaked out into the ground along this linear path, and then it seeped down through the soil, and got into the groundwater. Now that's where it's the problem, because once that material gets into the groundwater, then potentially it contaminates drinking water wells. These chlorinated solvents have been linked to leukemia in children, and things like this.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: Chlorinated solvents, are among the most widespread and cleanup resistant contaminants. Hazen tried something new. He harnessed the unique powers of methanotrophs by feeding them extra methane gas.

Scientist, Terry Hazen: The bugs are great, because they're everywhere these methanotrophs in particular, and by adding the natural gas, they grow up to higher densities and higher concentrations, so they degrade the contaminants. Same enzyme that they use to degrade the methane, and use the methane as a food, will also degrade this contaminant. In fact, it'll degrade two hundred and fifty other compounds.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: The microbes turn the poisonous solvent into carbon dioxide, and salt. Hazen inserted long pipes underground beneath the contamination and its natural population of methanotrophs. {Sound of chewing.} He pumped in air laced with methane gas. The better fed methanotrophs' population increased ten billion times. In less than two years, their enzymes completely eliminated the contamination.

Scientist, Terry Hazen: But what happens once we're done? Well, we just stop pumping in the methane, bacteria die back to their natural levels, and, uh, everything's back the way it was.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: Given time, and the right conditions microbes can degrade almost anything. Hazen's approach, simply accelerates natural processes. In a typical garbage dump. The most common waste is organic material, like household trash, and paper. It degrades very slowly.

Scientist, Terry Hazen: Everybody's heard the stories about being able to read newspapers that have been in a landfill for fifty years, okay? That's because there's not enough water there. There's not enough oxygen to get the biodegradation.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: At this Georgia dump, Hazen and a local contractor are pumping air, and water into the refuse. The result, the resident microbes thrive. They multiply rapidly. {Sounds of distant talking.} As their numbers increase, they degrade more trash, faster.

Scientist, Terry Hazen: It's so much better, such a better way to deal with our waste problems. I hope this spreads exponentially. We can utilize resources generated doing this operation to close the loop on the solid waste issue, and leave that waste generated during our generation stable, so that the next generation doesn't have to pick up that cost, and add it to its operating cost.

Scientist, Terry Hazen: Yeah, I think this is gonna spread throughout the country. I am just super excited about this. What a tremendously active microbial environment this has become. It gets up over a hundred and forty degrees, one hundred and fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and it's steaming. All of that is the microbes degrading so much material, so fast that they're creating this heat.

Unknown Man 1: I was just looking at this. It's got a good smell too.

Unknown Man 2: Yeah.

Unknown Man 1: Yeah, got a funky smell. It's got a good cooked smell.

Scientist, Terry Hazen: You can actually use your senses to see how well this is working, because the smell is much lower than if we had fresh garbage. This has just sort of a musty odor, whereas over here where they haven't been using this process, the smell is so overwhelming that it will make you throw up.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: With some extra air, and water, microbes degrade the dump's organic waste in a fraction of the normal time.

Scientist, Terry Hazen: So we're going from thirty, forty years or more, perhaps, down to just a couple of years, or maybe, in some cases, just a few months.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: A faster cleanup also saves money. Hazen's microbial method benefits our budget, as well as the air, soil, and groundwater.

Scientist, Terry Hazen: Okay, let's catch a big one. You know, here we are on the Savannah River and twenty years ago, the river was so contaminated that you couldn't eat the fish here. Now there's more fish, and their cleaner then they've been in many, many years. You know I'm really happy that I've been involved in that. That I can actually see an impact. On the environment ourselves. Did you see that one surface there? A big one just came up. You know it's sort of interesting that, that the microbes, the microscopic organisms in this world, the smallest of gods creatures, actually have the greatest potential, for curing the greatest problems.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: Biomediation techniques like Terry Hazen's are just beginning to catch on across the country, and over seas. As we learn more about microbial appetites, and how to stimulate them, we may turn microbes into our greatest allies in the war against pollution.

For over two hundred years we've been living in a age of machines, ushered in by the industrial revolution, now, we are at the dawn of a new age.

Scientist, Hunter-Cevera: This is the biological revolution, this is going to have a tremendous impact on our daily lives, I mean, we already know how microbes influence, what we eat, how we dress, our health care, and now being able to understand, or decipher their communication codes, and understanding how they function, with the structure of their communities. We're gonna take that knowledge, and make even better products for food, agriculture, enzymes, health care, and so forth.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: The ultimate machinery, is the machinery of life. We are beginning to understand its workings at the genetic level. Many of the coming changes, will connect microbes with the power of electronics. At a new Silicon Valley company, a team of biologists, and engineers is designing a machine, that identifies microbes by their DNA finger prints.

Unknown man: It's a prototype, which Bill has.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: Kurt Peterson is the firm's president.

Company president, Kurt Peterson: There is a a revolution going on, today, in microbiology. And a lot of that revolution is coming from the fact that, for many years we've been making integrated circuits, we've been making these little chips, that process electronic signals. And we're starting to realize, that those same techniques, for making those electronic chips, can be used to analyze microbes.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: Peterson's instrument will capture DNA from harmful microbes, that might be present in a sample of blood. What you see behind me is the guts of Cepheid's instrument. It's a DNA capture chip, it's made with integrated circuit processing. And each one of those pillars is about a hundredth of the diameter of a human hair. This forest of thousands of pillars, is designed to capture the DNA, that might be flowing through a solution, such as blood. DNA from a microorganism gets captured, and we can extract that DNA, and analyze it, and determine, what the microorganism is.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: By identifying microbes in a sample of blood. The hand held devise will diagnose illness in minutes. It will also detect harmful microbes in air, water, or food. Micro electronics, are perhaps the supreme expression of the industrial revolution. Their marriage to the growing understanding of genetics will have profound repercussions.

Scientist, Hunter-Cevera: I look at the potential of improving my children's life, new health care products, new foods, um, new ways to deal with cleaning up the environment. All of this is going to happen in my life time. And it will leave a legacy for my children, to sort of build upon, and the sense of their world being a better place. Thanks to the roles that microorganisms play in our daily lives.

Narrator, Lillian Lehman: The age of biology promises to make the Earth's tiniest creatures, our most valued partners. Our collaboration with them, has just begun, yet they are already changing our lives. The promise is real, the challenge will be to meet it wisely.

(Transcript provided by Tyler Anderson)


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