5xE

Synthetic Phytoplankton Controlled From Orbit


I call one of the brainfarts I'm fiddling with "5xE" ... Five times Earth. What would you pay for four more Earths of capability, compared to a fraction of one Earth less, due to environmental damage?

70% of the world is ocean, but about 70% of the net primary productivity (photosynthetic fixing of carbon) is on land, as much as 800 grams of carbon per square meter per year.

Why? Nutrient limits, and viral phages that attack phytoplankton.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/17/Plankton_satellite_image.jpg/310px-Plankton_satellite_image.jpg
Plankton density in the world's oceans
Blue is lifeless, lacking nutrients

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fd/Upwelling_image1.jpg/310px-Upwelling_image1.jpg
Nutrients supplied by river runoff and upwellings

If we could use space power to:

(1) pump sea-floor potassium and phosphorus to the surface ... and ...(2) control ocean-spanning artificial phytoplankton blooms ... we could draw down the current CO₂ surplus in less than a decade. And make billions pf people well-fed and healthy while doing so. (2) will need some explanation.

The lifespan of natural phytoplankton is about one day; they are "plagued" (heh) by viral phages, which limits the lifetime of blooms in natural nutrient up-wellings.

Harvard's George M. Church hypothesizes synthetic genome recoding in his popsci book Regenesis. Similar genetic sequences, different 3-base codons ("letters") encoding them and different transfer RNA matching codons to amino acids. A virus can't transcribe itself in that alien setup.

So, virus-proof gene-mod artificial plankton. But without viruses, how do we keep our "super-blooms" under control?

We don't encode all the necessary reproductive information in the DNA. Some of it is transmitted as optical signals FROM SPACE. Plankton range from 2 to 2000 micrometers; plenty big enough to catch some signal photons, even filter photons by wavelength.

Perhaps our gene-mod plankton have control signal photo-receptors and molecular state machines that add essential "start codons" to the messenger RNA made from the DNA. Or something more elaborate and more difficult for nature to work around.

How much light signal would we need? I know of two natural examples of optically-assisted reproduction; fireflies and coral. You know about the first. Coral is more arcane.

Coral polyps release their gametes in a burst, once a year, to fertilize each other. If they did that throughout the breeding season, the encounter rate would be vastly diminished, and predators could feast on gametes for weeks. Instead, the polyps detect the light from the full moon during breeding season, one or two unique nights, and the polyps all spew their gametes in a synchronized burst.

Phytoplankton are smaller than fireflies and coral polyps, but we can make our optical space control pulses (briefly) more intense and monochromatic than either of those natural examples. Using optical communications math and some wild ass guesses, the amount of power needed to control the ENTIRE GLOBAL OCEAN would be less than 100 megawatts (average) of pulsed laser light.

We might even use artificial lifeforms for the pumping process. Artificial miner-plankton could be engineered that drift down to the bottom, laden with energetic "fuel". The miners harvest phosphorus and potassium, then make some hydrogen for "lift". They rise to the surface to "trade" with the phytoplankton, fertilizer for fuel, and space-initiated messenger RNA enabling reproduction. Unlike competitive nature, we can develop physically independent microbes that depend on each other at the molecular level to reproduce.

...My hands wave madly ...

That brings us to (3) - how do we test all this without unleashing microbial Frankenstein?

Well, there's this small dead not-quite-a-planet about one light-second away from Earth. The surface is at the bottom of a 2400 m/s gravity well, equivalent to a 300 kilometer climb out of Earth's gravity well. There's plenty of sand to make glass-covered aquariums, and perhaps enough water at the poles to fill hectares of them, centimeter-deep.

There is a cold, cold 350 hour night to freeze the aquariums solid, so our lab robots can lift the top glass cover, slice the plankton-sicles into thin microscope slides (who needs a slide or cover-glass in 1/6 gee and vacuum?) and image and probe and filter and bombard a gazillion test samples all "lu-night" long.

Come lu-morning, distill the water, bake the plankton into fertilizer, rinse and repeat. After a year or two of this, and quintillions of tiny phytoplankton "test rats" bathed in mutagenic space radiation, we should have a pretty good idea of every trick the little rascals might pull on us.

The above is 5xE version 1.0. Sadly, not hack-proof.

5xE version 2.0: I hope we use these lunar labs to learn how to private-key-encrypt the genomes, so that any copying error completely scrambles the result, making Darwinian evolution and terrorist hacking impossible.

When we invent better sequences, we create new coded genomes with a shared and divided encryption key; multiple labs must agree to a change before we write and deploy a new genome. We also split up the design job.

Ditto for the optical bit sequence, transmitted from space, that enables reproduction. Perhaps that is sent in segments from many different enabling satellites. Nothing leaves the Moon labs besides data, of course. Petabytes of data per hour; we'll need LOTS of comm lasers and lots of relay stations in orbit to feed all that data to millions of technicians and scientists on Terra.

Technicians trained by space-based education - which was Sir Arthur Clarke's original goal for communication satellites, not tweets and pay-per-view movies. There are a billion slumdwellers around the world whose lives can be radically improved, so they can lead us to a richly abundant and robust global biosphere.


O.K., 5xE is NOT what you grew up reading in Analog.

But 5xE doesn't need Dean Drives, or tens of terawatts from space, either. Not even heros in space suits with flags and golf clubs. It IS a good first step towards developing the "soylent space chow" that we will need to feed space colonies. And feed the Earth. And regulate climate. And more ...

When we become Really Adept at gene engineering, our tamed phytoplankton can do more than feed a hyper-abundance of fish ( "Caviar for dinner /again/?" Mo-om, can't we have oatmeal instead?" ); perhaps we can teach the little buggers to weave carbon nanotubes, or at least high quality engineering carbon fiber. Or filter uranium and gold out of sea water. We can teach those guys to eat pollution, perhaps even radioactive isotopes (How? That's another web page, but think "atomic mass" and "optical resonance").

I look at what we've done with SBSP so far as bits and pieces which can be re-arranged into something VASTLY more valuable than we've permitted ourselves to think about so far. For the software-minded, think of how Linus Torvalds re-arranged GNU-Hurd (technically and socially) into Linux and a trillion dollar internet software infrastructure.

For the hardware minded, think about how we evolved micro-photography into chips into supercomputers. Biologists into semiconductor lab technicians, then semiconductor lab technicians into genome technicians.

We must inject ourselves INTO this mad, modern merry-go-round, not ignore it. Time to STOP partying like it's 1968, and Peter Glaser was looking for some way to fill the Shuttle payload bay.

With these tools and others, we will fill the SOLAR SYSTEM with LIFE (1e9xE). The other tools will also be reworkings of our old ideas; my own semi-successful inventions have been my tenth ideas, not my first. Plagiarize yourself.


Our interplanetary success will bring vast new problems; if a few hundred gigatonnes of extra carbon dioxide can mess up Earth's atmosphere, imagine what a few gigatonnes of retrograde propellant plume can do to spacecraft ram surfaces in Earth orbit.

I'm mostly thinking about the plume problem these days. I'm exploring analytical tools I've found in the academic literature, which were inspired by the E ring of Saturn, its moon Enceladus, and data from Voyager and Cassini.

I need help. We all need help. Let's train, house, and feed billions of "help". Only misanthropes fear a competent, collaborative world.

5xE (last edited 2020-01-25 18:33:49 by KeithLofstrom)