Dr. Allan Carroll

From 2011.igem.org

Team: British Columbia - 2011.igem.org

Interview with Dr. Allan Carroll

Associate Professor, UBC Department of Forest Sciences, Insect ecologist (Dr. Carroll's Bio)

The highest priority is to address the negative impacts of invasive species and minimize the impact of man on the environment.

Dr. Carroll is an expert in the population dynamics and impacts of eruptive forest insects, co-evolution of insect-plant interactions and the integrated management of forest insect populations. We thank him for his insightful comments on our project especially with regards to the mountain pine beetle and how it attacks trees.

1. Do you think synthetic organisms should be released into the wild?

These are some loaded questions. Yes, but in a very qualified and careful way. In this era of increasing population and global change, we must be increasingly innovative in the way we obtain and utilize our ecological services. Synthetic organisms are one way BUT past attempts to manipulate nature by introduction of organisms has often resulted in massive failure. The cane toad introduced to Australia and pest resistance to genetically modified corn are some examples and the list goes on and on. Humans have an inflated sense of our capacity to understand and manage ecosystems.

2. What standards would you recommend for their release?

Don't even contemplate the release of synthetic organisms until we have a sufficient understanding of the ecosystem consequences on all scales; spatial and temporal, from the molecular level to the landscape level. There may be no issues in the short term, but massive issues in the long term. For excamply, the mountain pine beetle outbreak is a long term result of a decision to suppress forest fires, resulting in the accumulation of more susceptible trees. It is not possible to gain a full understanding of all potential consequences but there are critical aspects and criteria that should be considered.

3. What challenges are there in terms of attaining public acceptance?

Awareness and acceptance are a huge issue. There is no easy answer. It can begin with a widespread and carefully crafted campaign to increase public knowledge. In my experience with the Canadian Forest Service, we once had a small spruce plantation that was uprooted by a member of the public who had a misconception that these spruce were genetically modified although they were actually just collected from different parts of the province. This issue of public perception cost tens of thousands of dollars. So it is important to increase education. For example, no one likes pesticides but the cost of not using them could be the loss of two thirds of the world's food supply according to the World Health Organization. If there are alternatives that will allow us to avoid pesticides but maintain food yield, that's great. But if not, then we have to choose between the use of pesticides or letting two thirds of the world starve. Education of the public is about more than the science and should encompass the social aspects. Anyone who tries to do science in the absence of social aspects will run into a brick wall. In my career, I have spoken to non-science audiences and it is important to translate the science, putting it into a context of understanding issues important to people. For example, speaking about water quality and aesthetics-no one wants to see a forest of dead trees-rather than gene to gene interactions in plants.

4. What future directions do you see for synthetic biology?

The highest priority is to address the negative impacts of invasive species and minimize the impact of man on the environment since we rely so much on our natural environment. For instance, clean air and water, even the cotton shirt you're wearing. In this global era, there is an increasing introduction of invasive species into the environment, which people have traditionally tried to control directly with insecticides, pesticides and the organism's natural enemies. Synthetic organisms are a potential tool to address this problem. They can also be used to increase crop production and protection. One of my visions, colored by my experience in forestry, is a way forward to minimize the forest landscape we exploit by using smaller pieces of realestate more intensively and allowing the larger landscape to develop naturally.

5. Do you think we should be rewriting the code of life?

Genetic engineering is important for us in this era of increasing population and global changes. Should we rewrite the code of life? I wish we didn't have to, but circumstances may dictate it. Again, it should be done carefully.