There have been some close calls throughout history as to when the end of mankind may have been on the horizon. Most of these were a long time ago, such as the Toba Explosion 70,000 years ago, that dimmed the sun for six years after a volcano erupted. Some experts believe that after that there were only a few thousand humans left on the planet, albeit the archaic kind of human. Much later, in 1962, it’s well known that the world was on the brink of seeing an all-out nuclear war. This became known as the Cuban missile crisis. How close were we? Closer than we thought, seems to be the general agreement these days. But today we are going to show you a much lesser heard of world crisis, in this episode of the Infographics Show, The Biotech That Almost Ended All Life on Earth.

The story begins with the problem of plant waste and how to get rid of it. It’s an age-old problem. If you burned, you created a lot of pollution that was very bad for the environment and the people that lived in it, but decomposing the waste just created a lot of unusable sludge that was not seen as an ideal method. So, thought some scientists in Germany in the 1990s, what if we turn all this waste into alcohol? This alcohol could then have many uses, including being used as fuel. Great, fantastic, go for it science.  

Scientists engineered a bacterium known as “Klebsiella planticola”. This would decompose the plant waste, and voila, turn it into alcohol. What was left over would then fertilize the land.

This bacterium exists all over the place already. It can be found in the guts of mammals, but it’s also found in the root systems of plants. K. planticola does a good job for this planet, it’s our friend, it keeps the cycle churning when it comes to plant matter. Its job is to decompose plants, and then they can grow again. It’s apparently very good at this, a kind of very effective grim reaper for the plant world. That’s why it was chosen by the scientists to modify and do the job of turning plant waste into alcohol. Only things weren’t that simple, as you shall see.

The scientists believed that by using the K. planticola they could not only turn some of the useless waste into alcohol, but also create a very powerful fertilizer. All the farmers had to do was collect the waste, contain it somewhere, and in time it would become alcohol that could fire our burners, cars, or even be drunk…and booze has never been in short demand. Anything left over would be this super-useful nitrogen-rich fertilizer. It was a win-win, in all conceivable ways.

But the scientists were doing their testing in a lab, and the soil they were using was sterile. The problem was farm soil isn’t sterile, and so the conditions are not the same. What they didn’t bargain for was the effect their super-fertilizer might have when it was spread back into the farm soil. Someone thankfully tested this. You see, the fermentation of the plant waste didn’t kill the modified K. planticola. It was still there in the fertilizer. This wasn’t good for the plants as it speeded up the killing process. Usually the plants would die when ready, but the modified bacterium just went to work destroying everything in its path at a frightening speed. The engineered version produced so much alcohol it fermented all plant life it came into touch with, and so in a way gave the crops alcohol poisoning.

But the scientists didn’t see this, and the miracle GMO was on its way to becoming shipped worldwide as a formula to help one and all. It had been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and marketing people were just working on a way to see to it that it reached all four corners of the globe. Thankfully, humanity was in luck.

That luck came by way of one scientist who was one of those people who are skeptical regarding something that looks too good to be true. Her name was Dr. Elaine Ingham and she hailed from the University of Oregon. More testing needed to be done, said the professor. She was well versed to make the claim, having written countless papers and books about soil and microbes. It turned out that what we were about to unleash on the planet would have destroyed all plant life it came into touch with, much like a scene from Revelations.

And this was no small threat. Well, that was according to some people. The matter of how much of a threat this was has come under some scrutiny. For instance, one writer wrote an article titled, “In 1992 the Environmental Protection Agency was only a few weeks away from ending life on the planet as we know it.” Was this overblown? Some people think so.

Robert Brockway, who wrote the book, “Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody”, seems to think not. On further investigation it seems Elaine Ingham had many disagreements with the EPA, but others see this as one woman’s fight against a huge organization. Another writer on an organics website said this in support of Ingham: “With billions of dollars at stake for companies like Monsanto, they simply cannot afford their products to be thrown in the trash and sometimes they’re pushed into the market and our environment regardless if they carry huge risks or are missing long-term studies.”

Regardless, and not surprisingly, the spread of the modified fertilizer, fuel creator, never happened. In Brockway’s words, we averted turning plants all over the globe into nothing but alcohol in a few weeks. There are of course skeptics, but the entire story seems to be a hush hush affair. One website provides links to where Dr. Ingham is supposedly discredited, but at time of writing we could not open any of these links.

For her part Dr. Ingham defends her work, in a letter she wrote anyway, stating that indeed releasing this fertilizer would have been disastrous. She writes, “Regardless of whether the EPA did or did not repeat the work, addition of genetically engineered Klebsiella planticola to soil has been shown to result in death of wheat plants in laboratory units.” She did, however, refute the assertion that it would end all life on Earth. But that isn’t to say she denied it would have a huge impact. In the letter she writes, “That this engineered bacterium could have serious implications for human life on earth is something that I would say, however.  But it would not end life on earth.” Life would be altered, she said, but we would live to breathe another day.

She ends by saying humans really must be more careful as to what they produce, stating that she is only thankful the engineered bacterium never made it out of the box, so to speak. She then cited scientific research that stated this was the effect on plants K. planticola had when tested. “The plants had no color, and were, mostly, lying dead on the surface of the soil.”

This is a fascinating story, and it seems one that didn’t make many headlines. Perhaps the truth is out there, and while we should never jump to conclusions based on one story alone, it seems this is a tale that demands some investigation.






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