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Marketing of Pollution May Be the Solution

December 21, 1987|MICHAEL BURKE | Michael Burke is a writer and photographer in San Diego. and

SAN DIEGO — Not all investment news is bad these days.

Specifically, there's reason to believe that pollution control and cleanup is about to become a very profitable business endeavor.

How? Well, let's face it--the pure air and water battle will never be won by fighting industry. Yet the war on pollution just might be won by joining it. And there's still plenty of time to get in on the ground floor, which is where the stock market seems to be headed anyway.

The answers to problems on both sides of any pollution issue lie in the rapidly advancing field of genetic research--through which pollution can be organically processed and made marketable. Whether dispersed in our air, lakes and streams, or fresh from the source in all its toxic splendor, consider the possibilities if common types of pollution were made edible!

Granted, recombinant DNA research--in which genes from one organism are transplanted into the genetic material of another, giving the organism new characteristics or abilities--is in its infancy. But in light of the incredible potential offered by this rapidly advancing science, it's not unreasonable to soon expect scientists to be selectively altering creatures to order. So why not an oyster that eats the ever-popular toxic insecticide Kepone? And not just eats it, growing fat and healthy, but breaks it down into harmless substances while remaining uncontaminated, and therefore marketable, itself. With a few more tweaks of its genetic material, the oyster could be induced to wash down the Kepone with some river-bottom mercury, which it would store directly and exclusively in its shell (for easy reclamation, of course).

With the entire creature now a salable commodity, in no time at all beds of pollution-eating shellfish would be cultivated under the entire length and breadth of our rivers and bays by droves of enterprising seafood/smelting entrepreneurs.

And as long as we're redesigning the oyster, why not consider alleviating an aspect of human suffering even more familiar to some of us than unseen pollution?

Think of the countless injuries we ardent shellfish lovers sustain as we struggle to pry open these objects of our culinary desire. How many sliced, dented and otherwise mutilated fingers and palms have we stoically (and sometimes quite vocally) endured in our pursuit of protein on the half-shell?

Enter the genetic engineer (this will have to go to one of the truly dedicated) to redesign a breed of shellfish with a special, genetically programmed muscle response. You guessed it--the top half of the shell flies open when struck with the bottom of a 12-ounce beer can. Not only would this tend to cut down on accidental blood loss from the familiar "pry-slip-damn!" routine, but it also has the potential to become an interesting new form of friendly wagering--which side of the oyster is the top?

Cleanup Just the Beginning

But back to industrial pollution. Cleanup is only the beginning, and shellfish are but a single example. "Pollution consuming" companies would spring up overnight, buying waste right at the source and carefully transporting this now valuable feed to their tanks or pens or coops that hold whatever creatures have been genetically reprogrammed to munch on our previously genocidal wastes.

Why, even air pollution could cease to be a problem.

Imagine the lowly mosquito, its cells stuffed to bulging with new DNA instructions, filtering the residue from high-sulfur coal burning power plants as the smoke passes through cage after cage of the insects on its way to the open air. The sulfur dioxide pollutant is broken down to its basic elements by this selective organic precipitator. The insect uses the oxygen for respiration and excretes the sulfur, which of course is collected for re-sale in its now pure form.

So perhaps the major polluters in this country and others--the steel and chemical and refining industries--ought to take a look at the genetic research going on today, with an eye to spending their lobbying budget (that would otherwise be wasted on politicians) on a fledgling industry offering the chance for an incredible return on investment.

The "smart" money backing things when the breakthroughs start coming will undoubtedly determine patent rights to whatever pollution-recycling creatures are developed. And the returns from royalties and breeding licenses alone should more than compensate for the initial capital outlay.

Incidentally, I have this idea for a canary that eats radioactive waste and provides as much illumination as a 100-watt bug light. Now if anyone's interested . . .

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