Conservation Corner

Earth Day 2017

Pauline Lee

Our earth is estimated to be over 4.5 billion years old, and traces of chemicals left in rocks in Greenland indicate that these were the remains of early one-celled living beings, possibly 3.5 billion years old. On Earth Day, April 22, 2017, let’s reflect how scientists have developed enough understanding of the basic mechanisms involved in all living beings so that we can plan to live better, employ what is beneficial and discard what is harmful. Since men have lived on earth, they have been mostly unaware of the existence of the majority of living beings, i.e. one-celled microorganisms, including bacteria. Actually, bacteria were discovered only around 350 years ago, when Antony van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutchman with great curiosity and creativity, invented the microscope. Using his microscope, he discovered bacteria everywhere, but people didn’t understand what they were. Then, two centuries later when European scientists and doctors linked bacteria to illness, unfortunately, bacteria became known as pathogens and bad germs.

But as scientists have studied more bacteria, the tremendous growth in the understanding of microbiology has shown that most microorganisms are beneficial to our environment and for all living beings. Their coexistence with their hosts, benefitting both sides, is called symbiosis. The one-celled organism arachaea, even simpler than bacteria, completes the one-celled living beings. Without them, our atmosphere wouldn’t have the oxygen that we need to live, and dead material couldn’t be decomposed to regenerate our environment. Plants and all living beings, including man, depend on microorganisms for vitamins and breaking down complex molecules for their hosts to use. The chloroplasts that capture sunlight for photosynthesis originate from merger with special kind of microorganisms. The mitochondria in every cell of our body has a bacteria component to produce energy enabling us to live.

During these last 70 decades, advancement in technology has allowed scientists to explore more microorganism and to understand the primary mechanisms by which these simplest living beings adapt to all kinds of environment. Amazingly, their limited amount of genetic material and proteins can edit foreign genetic material to make survival possible. Using such tools from microorganism to edit genetic material in plants and animals, scientists have unleashed potentials that are undeveloped in nature because of regulatory impediments in certain genes. Thus, plant scientists have produced plants resistant to drought, cold or diseases, or plants producing a variety of nutrients or even therapeutic proteins for humans. In the medical field, scientists have recently saved two infants from leukemia by editing their immune cells so that they attacked malignant cells.

Let the success of gene editing in improving our lives help us respect and protect the versatility and potential of nature on this Earth Day. Our careless treatment of nature is estimated to have reduced the diversity in plants and in the animal kingdom in our wilderness by 50%. Man should learn to coexist with nature as the microorganism have done. SYMBIOSIS practiced by man can lead to health and sustainability for humankind and for our earth.