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Wednesday, 19 January 2011


All technologies that we create, create problems - just think of the motor car.  But on balance every single technology that we have created has given us more than it has taken away.

Every single technology except one: explosives.  Explosives do have limited beneficial uses: mining, quarrying and demolition come to mind.  However, the principal use of explosives is the opposite of beneficial - it is killing.  What's more, virtually every machine that we make for killing relies on explosives.  These machines range from those such as the suicide vest or the nuclear bomb that have killed comparatively few people, to viscously lethal weapons of mass destruction such as the assault rifle.

And the beneficial uses of explosives all have alternatives.  Mining, quarrying and demolition can be done with expanding collets driven by very high-pressure hydraulic oil.  Explosives are a little cheaper for the job, that is all.

At least since the invention of agriculture in Mesopotamia 12,000 years ago, humanity has been doing genetic engineering.  These days this is achieved by the direct editing of DNA, but the old way - selective breeding - still works well, and it can be done by anyone.  It is particularly easy to breed microbes selectively.   Suppose you want a yeast that will produce (and tolerate) higher concentrations of alcohol.  You just set up a few dozen small fermentation vessels, add yeast to each, and drop in a little extra alcohol.  Those yeasts that survive you breed from; the rest you discard.  Repeating this process over a few weeks (upping the alcohol each time) will give you a surviving yeast with much higher alcohol tolerance than its wild forbears.

What has the selective breeding of microbes to do with alleviating the misery caused by explosives?   Well - explosives are organic molecules with a lot of energy locked up in their chemical bonds.  In other words they are an ideal potential food source for yeasts, bacteria and archaea.  But explosives haven't been around for long enough for such explosive-eating microbes to evolve by natural selection.

So why not apply artificial selection to the problem?  Dope the nutrient medium in a collection of petri dishes with small quantities of many explosives, add a large number of different microbes (sewage would probably be a good source) and pick out those microbes that do well.  Gradually reducing the conventional nutrient and upping the explosive content over the generations should select for those organisms that can digest the explosives best.  And, as the microbes multiplied through the explosives, they would neutralise them by using up chemical energy.  The energy would still be released - ultimately as heat - but harmlessly over weeks rather than lethally over a microsecond.

It might be an idea to add a little brass and steel to the breeding mix, so that the bugs could also work up the ability to etch through shell casings to get at their lunch.

The result would be that ammunition would turn to harmless goo in its magazines and that bombs would rot in their silos.

A world elevated to using bows and arrows again would not be completely peaceful.  But it would be a lot more peaceful than the world that explosives has created.


Adrian Bowyer said...

A comment on my own post: you can't, obviously, stop evolution. There would clearly be a selection pressure on my bomb-rot microbes (as there is on every organism) to maximise their dispersal. A rather good way to disperse spores might be to cause the explosive remaining after some had been eaten to explode. Bacterial quorum sensing would, I'm sure, be up to the task of deciding the optimum point to switch between eating and detonating.

Adrian Bowyer said...

It appears that a start has been made...

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