After three years of studying in the Netherlands, Kim Barentsen had decided to volunteer in Indonesia. Tired after being under water for two hours and overloaded with all her diving equipment, Kim dragged herself over the hot black sand of the beach. The struggle, involving the removal of her wetsuit in the warm, sticky weather gave her more of a headache than she already had. Two hours of measuring the condition of her coral garden gave her a headache, as she had found most of the coral white, which meant that the coral was lifeless. “This global warming is most unfortunate” she thought to herself, somewhat frustrated at how humanity was now also ruining the beautiful and peaceful underwater world. The lovely lunch her motherly hostess prepares everyday would hopefully cheer her up.
Indeed, the traditional gado-gado with tempeh lifted her spirits. This was her favorite, her hostess knew that. She was enjoying the peace and the sound and movement of the sea. Kim found herself in thought about how pollution is not only affecting the land, but also the sea. Coral is most sensitive to temperature fluctuations. Temperature increases causes the algae which live in symbiosis with the coral to leave, resulting in coral bleaching. Once a snorkeler said to her: “The coral is so beautiful – it appears to be almost fluorescent!” Unfortunately, that is because it is dying. “And so many fish, it is unbelievable”. How would this be in several years’ time? No coral, means no colorful fish to admire.
‘How could a sweet girl like you be so unethical?’
An older woman sat down, interrupting Kim’s thoughts. Kim did not know the older, hippie-looking woman, but travelling alone encourages one to talk to every stranger. Of course, the topic about what Kim was doing in Indonesia was addressed. Kim mentioned that she was a diver-researcher volunteer. As the woman was from Australia, she was familiar with the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. “Can the coral be saved, Kim?” she asked. Kim looked up from her plate and said: “Perhaps someday, however I do not think nature can restore the coral unaided”.
Kim did not believe that evolution could keep up with the rapidly increasing water temperature. “So, what is the solution?” The woman was now paying attention as she had an affection for the Great Barrier Reef and nature itself. “Genetically engineering the DNA of the coral would help them to live in warmer temperatures”, Kim said, pleased that her studies were about the genetic modification of micro-organisms and cells which could potentially save the reef.
“What!” the woman said in disbelief, “How could a sweet girl like you be so unethical? Genetic-engineering technologies are destroying nature and therefore the world. I hope your travels will help you to find yourself closer to nature”. Kim was astonished by her reaction, but it did get her thinking:
27 May 2016:
"Helping the world in one's eyes while destroying the world in the eyes of another. I am not sure that what I am doing will eventually be good for this world."
As Kim was sitting in class, she was listening to Luuk van der Wielen, a professor from TU Delft who had been working for over 30 years in the bio-energy sector. He took his plastic sandwich bag and stretched it out as he was speaking to his students. “Did you know that the material of which this plastic bag is made, has the same energy density as diesel?” A silence fell as the students thought about the statement. After several seconds, Van der Wielen continued: “Plastics have a lot of potential energy that is not necessary for its use. Thereby, they cannot be recycled by nature. This makes plastics and other chemicals unsustainable and the potential energy cannot be used again. It requires a lot of energy to produce it, which is not sustainable either. Chemicals release huge amounts of CO2 emissions when produced. Production of chemicals is a waste of valuable energy.”
The professor believed in the bio-based economy, meaning an economy based on bio-based products replacing all the unsustainable chemicals. “Nature has been developed in such a way that ANY chemical can be produced by biology”. Kim imagined such a bio-based economy in which materials were produced by biology. Buildings would be built with bio-bricks, our groceries would end up in bio-plastic bags and vehicles would drive on bio-fuels. How would this world look like? Probably not that different. Only that the CO2 accumulation would be reduced and, hopefully, people will be less afraid of environmental uncertainty. It looked good to her, she was inspired by the professor’s idea.
After the professor’s lecture, Kim wanted to know more. He had raised questions in her as to the feasibility of a bio-based economy. ‘Bio-energy and Sustainability: Bridging the gaps’, a report elaborating on the various aspects of the bio-based economy by experts, gave her more insight about its feasibility. A bio-based economy could be achieved if different industry sectors could be integrated, starting with business models and financial planning. Small-scale projects could initiate the bio-based economy.
A business model for a bio-based community, integrating several industrial sectors. How would this look? She took a piece of paper and started drawing. In her drawing, she linked the different sectors, starting with the plants. Let’s use corn as an example. They are alive due to photosynthesis, in which CO2 is used as a source to build their own biomass. Plants use the energy of the sun. You could say that they capture the energy of the sun within their biomass and create energy in the form of sugars and other compounds. The head of corn goes to the food market. The rest of the plant still has energy reserves and this energy can thus be used to produce other materials. This biomass is used by micro-organisms to make all kind of materials, such as bio-bricks, bio-fuels and bio-plastics. Remember that nature can produce ANY chemical as Van der Wielen stated. Because biomass is the energy for the micro-organisms, biomass is thus bioenergy.
She examined her drawing. The drawing was indicating that there was a continuous CO2 neutral cycle of CO2 emission and uptake. Kim acknowledged that the model was sustainable, rather than the fossil fuels causing CO2 accumulation in our atmosphere.
“On the other hand”, Kim thought whilst biting her pen, “there are two requirements”. The first aspect that she needed to ponder was that there must be enough plants and efficient nutrition. “This is where the GMO (Genetic Modified Organism) debates jump in”, she thought. A second requirement was that the micro-organism must be genetically modified in order to make them sustainable bio-materials. Because nature does not develop the most efficient micro-organisms for biotechnology, genetic engineering (GE) makes it possible to adapt the metabolism of the micro-organisms, thereby making the micro-organism more efficient in producing a desired product. “This is another ethical problem”, she sighed. Then she looked at her drawing again and smiled: “Can you imagine, instead of using toilet paper in the way it is intended, this biomass can be used to make your own bio-fuels or perhaps your own beer!”
Governments need to provide legislation allowing bio-energy systems to compete with the cheap fossil fuels
After having insights into the concrete ethical problems of the bio-based economy, Kim went to the office of Lotte Asveld, an expert in biotechnology and ethics at TU Delft. Her main question was whether the bio-based economy was feasible despite the GE. The professor told her about the main obstacles in the field, which were the costs and the quality of bio-energy and not the ethics, which make it less attractive for companies to invest in sustainable projects. In one of Kim’s lectures about industrial ecology, Lucia van Geuns, an expert in the field of fossil fuels and the international energy transition, once said “Have we hit the end of the ‘fossil fuel era’? Not even close”. The way things look at this point in time, we will still be using fossil fuels for quite some time. In order for companies to commit to the bio-energy investment, governments need to provide legislation allowing bio-energy systems to compete with the cheap fossil fuels.
“What about ethics?” Kim asked. She recalled another presentation for KNAW, a presentation given by Jack Pronk, professor of biotechnology at TU Delft. For over three decades, genetically modified micro-organisms have been used in industry to make products ranging from the enzymes in washing powder to life-saving medicines such as insulin and antibiotics, and from ingredients in cattle feed to car fuels. Even before the advent of molecular genetics, the DNA of micro-organisms used in making products such as yoghurt, cheese and beer was changed unintentionally, and this has never caused problems. Asveld continued, “people must see the benefits of GE and then the public will accept it”. There is so much negative publicity about GE as most papers are about what they call the scandals of Monsanto and the negative influences of GMO, but less is written about its possibilities.
That evening Kim wrote in her notebook:
27 October 2006:
"I do not know what nature is anymore as I cannot come closer to it, as society is not letting me do so. Pure nature is hard to find. For ages we have influenced nature by crossing plant species to generate beautiful red tomatoes and we have selected the strongest horses whilst slaughtering the others."
‘How is this not unethical?’ Kim thought and stopped writing. “Am I more unethical because I am willing to help nature to maintain species and reduce pollution with technology?” She did not think so.
The next morning Kim went running on Kijkduin beach and sat down for a while watching the sea. Kite surfers were catching the wind and performing their maneuvers on the waves. A young man came and sat down next to her and they talked for a while. “So, what does a girl like you want in life?” he asked Kim. Kim hesitated for a moment thinking about framing her answer. “I want to help this economy run on sustainable products such as bio-plastics and bio-fuels with genetic engineering”. “Oh” answered the guy, “I did not know genetic engineering could save the world”. Kim smiled and looked out over the sea. She will fight like hell for her vision in which sustainability is provided by circular thinking mimicking nature. Together with all the people who inspired her, she embraces the fourth revolution.
About fifteen Science Communication master students take the subject Science Journalism at TU Delft every year. One of their assignments is to write a feature article on their original field of expertise. Kimberly Barentsen is one of them. She has a bachelor’s degree in Life Science and Technology. She attended the journalism course last year and wrote this article. Delta asked her to publish it here on the Delta Lab to encourage this year’s students to do the same, so keep an eye out for their articles.
With a lot of thanks to InterSECtion, the study association of the master study Science Education and Communication
 The fourth revolution can be described as a range of technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds and that impacts all disciplines, economies and industries.
 Enzyme: an important element (protein) manufactured by a cell that catalyzes a certain chemical change
 Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen
 Biomass is organic living or dead matter.
 Bio-based products (or bio-chemicals): substances with an organic molecular composition produced by biological processes that can be recycled by nature.
 Chemical: a substance with a distinct molecular composition produced by chemical processes that cannot be recycled.