Ends of the World: The Green Goo

The Grey Goo may be hypothetically dangerous, a potential warning for those who think unrestricted, self-replicating nanobots are, you know, a good idea.

But there’s something else out there. Something worse. Something that could pose a real threat to humanity and, indeed, our entire ecosystem.

The Green Goo.

The Green What?

The Green Goo is an odd term for what it describes. While Grey Goo is used to describe out-of-control nanotechnology, Green Goo defines the dangers of merging nanotechnology with biology.

As a communique published in 2003 by the ETC Group (that’s the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) succinctly puts it:

“The more likely future scenario is that the merger of living and non-living matter will result in hybrid organisms and products that end up behaving in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways…”

Read it: Green Goo: Nanobiotechnology Comes Alive! (PDF)

If unchecked, it’s possible our use of genetic engineering, or the use of synthetics to modify, enhance, or artificially create living cells or organisms, may pose a great threat to our entire planet.

Is It Happening Now?

The Green Goo Attacks
Image: Flickr/Chris Chan via CC by 2.0

DNA nanotechnology, or the “manufacture of artificial nucleic acid structures,” and the generation of synthetic membranes are two examples of our current progress with bionanotechnology.

But things can go even further.

Creating synthetic cells that are more resistant than their all-natural counterparts. Modifying humans to be “better.” Manufacturing organisms — artificial life — from scratch.

They’re extraordinary, far-reaching possibilities, and we’re certainly getting there. But at what cost?

“You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox…”

– Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park (1993)

Consider the hypothetical, artificial red blood cells proposed by Robert Freitas, called respirocytes.

These artificial red blood cells would be created to replace normal blood cells, to the point where they’d nearly supplant a human’s normal respiratory system.

A person with these new respirocytes in their body would, for example, be able to spend an extraordinary amount of time underwater with a single breath of air. He or she would also be able to sprint for 15 minutes without running out of breath, and would experience a general increase in endurance.

The problem with these hypothetical cells? We wouldn’t understand their long-term effects on humans or the environment. What if these cells inadvertently entered the ecosystem? What if they spread to other animals?

And there’s another downside: what would happen if a criminal/supervillian gained their benefits?

The consequences of such bionanotechnology are impossible to predict.

Welcome To (Nano) Jurassic Park

The Green Goo, for now, is considered a hypothetical danger, but it’s easy to see the risks.

We can never be sure of our technology’s long-term impact on our environment, particularly when we begin to experiment with and manipulate evolutionary processes that have occurred over millions of years, which we honestly don’t yet fully understand.

We can pretend to control it, but as they say: Life finds a way.

At any rate, the ETC Group urges “foresight and caution” in the face of this relatively under-reported threat.


Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.