since moved to the National University of Singapore.">

By Steve Pointing 09/09/2015


 

Two pieces of research news this week highlight how, in science, bad things can outwardly seem a good idea and good things can sometimes sound scary! 

First the ‘good’ – a team at Queensland University of Technology have been developing an underwater robot that can kill starfish – doesn’t sound that good does it?  Well, this very clever invention is an autonomous submarine that can identify the pesky crown of thorns starfish against a background of coral and other sea creatures, and then administer a lethal injection of saline solution to kill them.  The reason for this is that the crown of thorns starfish is a voracious predator of coral polyps, and population numbers have exploded due to nutrient runoff from land and other factors, which is decimating corals worldwide.  Estimates are that up to 50% of coral senescence is due to this starfish.  This is good news because corals will be saved, but even more ‘goodness’ becomes apparent when you compare this to the disastrous impact of ‘real’ introduced animals as predators of pests – often they have end up being a greater problem themselves!  When viewed in this context the ‘terminator’ approach to crown of thorns starfish is therefore not such a scary idea after all!  Once populations are reduced to an acceptable level the robots can be called off, but that is pretty much impossible with an introduced predator! Follow QUTs starfish killing terminator on their wiki: https://wiki.qut.edu.au/display/cyphy/COTSBot

The second shows how something that sounds good can, at a stretch, become something that is potentially ‘bad’!

A team at UC Berkeley report this week they have created an artificial leaf that produces a fuel (methane) using semi-conducting nanowires and bacteria in a ‘bio-inorganic’ interface (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/08/18/1508075112).  The PNAS article reports how the photoactive nanowires produce hydrogen that is then utilised by the bacteria to fix carbon into fuel molecules (rather than sugar molecules as in ‘normal’ photosynthesis). This is an excellent piece of research and represents an important step towards renewable fuels, but I am a little worried about the ‘spin’ this research area has attracted in some press reports implying that humanity may be able to ‘reverse’ climate change using artificial leaf technology to soak up carbon emissions. (e.g. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20121004-fake-trees-to-clean-the-skies, http://www.informationweek.com/it-life/artificial-leaf-might-be-key-to-reversing-climate-change/a/d-id/1319459).

This is crazy, not least because the technology to achieve this would have to process trillions of tonnes of carbon annually and this is simply not practical in terms of resources or logistics. It makes greater sense to plant more trees and maintain healthy oceanic productivity. They not only utilise carbon dioxide but they also capture vast amounts of dust and act as reservoirs for biodiversity as well as supporting food webs – things an artificial leaf could never do.  Promulgating the notion that humans can ‘fix’ climate change using technology in this way is reckless reporting at a time when science unequivocally shows that drastically reduced emissions and better environmental stewardship are urgently needed. Anything that attempts to detract from that clear fact is, dare I say it, ‘bad’!

Image credit: Orion Pictures