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Shoulder by Shoulder: Urgent Biotechnological and Ethical Issues Part II

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Shoulder by Shoulder: Urgent Biotechnological and Ethical Issues


Part II

Elias Hakalehto, PhD, Adj. Prof.

Microbiologist, Biotechnologist

CEO, Finnoflag Oy

Vice President, International Society of Environmental Indicators

Published on 14th of May, 2021

There is a metaphor in an old Finnish fairy-tale. The humans and animals in the forest wore eyeglasses with different coloured lenses. The colour of the lenses influenced their perception of the outside world greatly. To see the world through pink lenses, they needed to decide to replace their old dark lenses. - Correspondingly, hearing the news of today´s world, we often would need some pinkier shade in our lenses to maintain a basic level of optimism needed to cope with the contemporary global issues and atrocities. These deeds are committed by humans against their kind and the future generations, against all animals and plants, and the microbial ecosystems.

In the microbial world, the survival strategy includes the potential for staying alive for all. The diversified genetic pool is the number one prerequisite for the microbial society to live on. In his book "Outliers - The Story of Success" (2008), Malcolm Gladwell points out the central role of the outliers of human society to exercise their trained capacity to find ways out of the hardships and the entire society. In altered situations, times of crisis, or in need of novel solutions, they are the ones to whom to turn. - Yes, and this smartness and success are associated with a great understanding of the circumstances. Gladwell e.g. refers to the Far-Eastern rice farmers who in their families had a traditional or inherited knowledge on each slice or embankment or bank of the soil in their possession. Thus they could quickly react to any changes or new situations - based on generations-old wisdom. That wisdom has made them capable of surviving and maintaining their culture. Similarly, the micro-organisms can utilize the riches of the ecological niches together.

As a little boy, I was once again hiking in the Finnish forest with my late Father, a mathematician. We then discovered a largely hidden deposit of delicious mushrooms in the densest part of the spruce forest. Naturally, I wanted to collect them all with the enthusiasm of youth, but my Father told me: "Leave a part of the mushroom unpicked." When I wondered and questioned his orders, he justified them: " The old Sami people of Lapland always left a part of their catch, or berries or other findings behind untouched for the next one to come, because that one might need them more." This was a lifelong lesson. In such case, the respect for Nature brings about respect for other humans, our kind." And this also bears the great wisdom of not breaking the balance of the microenvironment in question, neither the balance of soil nor its microbiome.

So, the ethics seem to spring out of the soil and the sensible use of its resources. In other words, it is living according to the microbiological balance of the local soil or the habitat. As like Prof. Emer. Pekka Nuorteva, the first professor in environmental protection at the University of Helsinki 1974-93, kept repeating during his lectures: "Human economy has to get adapted with the economy of Nature." He was also the chairman of the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation in 1967-70. Since his active days, our societies have changed a lot. Now it is, in theory, more and more self-evident that the ecological principles need to be included in the core of planning human activities. But this is often the theory only.

The same principles that keep the ecosystems in balance were taken into account by our forefathers in various cultures and the agricultural practices or the lives of the hunter-gatherers. These have been largely forgotten during the era of modern industrialization. However, now we could take them into account, e.g. in industrial biotechnology and the cultivation of any food or chemical commodities or novel materials by micro-organisms. In Tampere, my childhood city in Western Finland, which is the biggest inland city in Fennoscandia, they switched on the electric lights more than 130 years ago, as one of the five first locations in Europe. After the great innovations of Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Thomas A. Edison, Nicola Tesla and others. Later on, this city of pulp and paper mills, machinery and locomotive factories, makers of industrial installations, textiles, shoes, foods, plastics and all that is needed in our everyday lives became the global hotbed of mobile phone industries. The first NMT, GSM and 5g phone calls were all made in Tampere.

Currently, the city decision-makers ponder the establishment of "the most ecological suburb". This Hiedanranta area is supposed to be built by Lake Näsijärvi. Just on-site of the big forest industry complex started more than a century ago and decommissioned nearly 15 years ago. As a result of its active years, there accumulated at least 1.5 M tons of cellulosic waste onto the lake bottom, making up to ten meters thick mattress or sediment of the so-called "zero fibre". - The microbial utilization of this past waste deposit proved to be economically feasible and ecologically sustainable in the pilot project "Zero waste from zero fibre". In the project, my company Finnoflag Oy was the key technology provider. We provided evidence about the high-level production of lactate and other valuable chemicals by microbes and their enzymes. From the residual fraction, it was possible to produce organic fertilizers that were highly efficient in the greenhouse trials by the University of Helsinki. Moreover, it was possible to get, besides methane, biohydrogen, directly from the biorefinery process. As a result of this all, it became achievable the goal "zero waste". And it could make the economic balance of the ecosystem cleaning process clearly positive. At the same time, the safety of the future 25000 dwellers of the Hiedanranta bay area could be safeguarded by the constructors since the winter ice would grow strong enough to carry skiers and ice-hockey players or dogsleds and skids and those fishing under the ice. During warmer seasons, now stinks or unhealthy aerosols would spread out of lakes and their shores.

Since we live side by side with all living things, we are prone to meet the challenges of the contemporary world together. "A friend in need is a friend indeed." For example, the tigers are large mammals on the top of food chains. In Haifa Zoo in Israel, a poster outside the tigers´ cage indicated that these magnificent animals were supposed to be extinct from natural ecosystems by 2020. Fortunately, this did not happen, but we are on the brink of losing an important part of our conception of the animal kingdom, a symbol of pure force for many. When resting by the cage that sunny afternoon, the tiger quietly arrived beside me, behind the plastic see-through wall. When I was looking right, she was looking right, and when left, she turned her head. Although separated by the plex wall, we were inseparable by fate on this planet as travellers of time and space.

Like humans, the tigers could also get infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its variants, causing different forms of the COVID-19 disease. We also share this vulnerability, but the responsibility is on our side. It was not tigers who confused any ecosystems to become "corona-slings". They did either transfer the germs across the oceans, which then threaten every corner of the world of ours and the tigers´. The solution is at hand. We should not speak "in front of our teeth" or "with forked tongue," as Native Americans describe dishonest talking without true acts. This world cannot afford it, nor can the younger generations. Microbiomes lack the puzzle for understanding ecosystem functions, whether natural or human-made, agricultural or within our food chains. We are where our heart is.

In the physiological sense, the essence or core of our digestion is in the duodenum, the uppermost part of the small intestines. The stomach sprays the food, and it changes into chyme by numerous digestive enzymes and microbiological action. This facilitates the fast nutrient uptake and is the starting point for our coexistence with our gut microbes. This is the centre for nutrient absorption as the lungs are for the Oxygen uptake and heart or blood veins are for distributing it to all cells. In fact, there is no part in our body more remote than a millimetre of the nearest capillary. - A rather novel scientific discipline has been kicked off by the Professor Jeremy K. Nicholson of Imperial College, London, and Professor Jeremy R. Everett of Greenwich University, U.K., and several others, e.g. in Canadian universities and the Metabolomics Innovation Center. The purpose of this field is, among many other issues, to feature "the systematic study of the unique chemical fingerprints that specific cellular processes leave behind". In fact,  in the Hiedanranta project mentioned above. We wished to follow up the metabolic pathways leading to the production of desired chemical commodities to make valuable products out of the side streams or environmental deposits. These studies were carried out in cooperation with Prof. Emer. Reino Laatikainen and his NMR equipment of the University of Eastern Finland, as well as Prof. Emer. Erik Dahlquist and his group of the Mälardalen Univeristy in Västerås, Sweden. Ecologically, we are said to leave our footprint on the soil or the lake bottom, but metabolically we also leave our fingerprints on the global ecosystem.

Actually, the dissemination of infections and the emerging of new pandemics are all related to similar ecological principles that appear in natural ecosystems or bioprocesses. For example, the author of this blog has been worrying in the earlier submissions about the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria forming epidemics in the aftermath of virus pandemics. So far, the medications have been effective enough. However, one early warning sign is the spread of Mucor sp. moulds or mucormycosis in India. These devastating conditions caused by pathogenic fungi is hitting hard to the damaged epithelia of the COVID-19 patients. In Finland, this perilous infection may spread as a consequence of sick building disease. Thus, we can see that our microbiological health is connected with the microbial ecosystems around us once again. And once again, I am alarming about the increasing possibility of emerging antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

Since the beginnings of the virus pandemics, there has been a hope living about the vaccinations to contain the spread of the COVID-19 disease. However, unfortunately, the day-to-day information from some big countries suggests a different path for future developments. In Brazil, novel variants have emerged and rapidly distributing to neighbouring countries and beyond. In India, only slightly more than 10% of the population has been vaccinated (with the first dose), and now the daily number is about 400.000 new cases. According to the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), 20-30% of the patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 lose immunity after six months. Definitely, we would need passive immunization besides the vaccinations to eradicate the virus. From a strong ethical standpoint, it is our right to develop our technologies "to dress it and keep it," as stated in Genesis. - We need the tigers as they need our modesty and wisdom to survive. And there may come those after us who are still more in need to "Habito et Existõ".


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