Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Genetically Engineered Water Hyacinth?

  1. Nov 4, 2005 #1
    I had an idea a number of months back as a, at least partial, source of energy we humans could tap. Solar energy. Already been thought of I know, but not like this. Genetically engineer the aquatic plants called water hyacinths(Eichhornia crassipes) to be capable of growing in salt water and instead of filling their lift bladders with gas, they fill them with vegetable oil; another spliced in trait.
    Water hyacinths are blights in fresh water, they'd be blights in the ocean as well; if they weren't harvested for the oil. But they would be, that's the whole point. They can double their numbers in two weeks. The vegetable oil version wouldn't be capable of this, likely, due to the amount of energy that would need to go into synthesizing the large amounts of oil. However, giant hyacinth mats, hundreds of thousands of square kilometers in area, in the Pacific ocean between the Tropic of Capricorn and Cancer, would clean up, so to speak, in their growth rate.
    My first is, how soon is such genetic control going to be possible,i.e. when can such plants be created?
    Second question, what kind of idea is this, insane to try?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 4, 2005 #2


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Oil is extracted from the seeds of plants. It seems like a very long stretch to fill bladders with it. You should check out the thread in politics on GMO plants to get an idea of the risks of introducing a species, especially a rapidly growing species, into a novel habitat without a plan to control it.
  4. Nov 5, 2005 #3
    Why? Bacteria have created human insulin since the 80s. Glow in the dark plants, have a gene from fireflies, exist already. A gene(s) must control where the oil is and isn't formed. Why in the seeds but no place else? Genetics. Why don't humans have nerve cells that can feel pain in our brains? Genetics. Simply put the oil gene(s) to where they dump their oil production in the float bladders. The bladders would still function as floatation, because oil is lighter than water.

    Ok. Scooping it up with ocean skimmer ships and burning the vegetable oil as fuel, converting it into synthetic petrol or making bioplastics from their oil seems like an effective control to me. The plant's bodies themselves could be burned, used to create synthetic petrol, mulched and sprayed back into the ocean to rot and provide nutrients for the next generation of oil hyacinths etc. etc. etc. You see, I've put many hours of thought into my pet idea?
  5. Nov 5, 2005 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    In the meantime, it clogs water intake lines on ships used for cooling the engines and tangles up the propellers, invades entire marinas and the related ecosystems, chokes out sunlight reaching the photosynthetic organisms beneath the surface, killing the fish that feed on them below that, contaminates the water with oil changing the surface tension properties so the poor duckies don't float anymore, not to mention the mess on the beaches. The first hurricane comes through, and the plants are strewn throughout the seas of the world. :uhh: Ocean habitats are really hard to maintain any control over. If you have a species that you already know is invasive, it makes no sense at all to do something to adapt it to yet another environment.

    I can't recall the name of the plant...some sort of seaweed...that's currently a problem in the Mediterranean around Italy. It escaped from aquariums, just a few plants getting flushed into the wild have completely taken over the aquatic ecosystem in the area.
    Okay, here it is...

    Apparently it is also now in the wild in the coastal waters of Australia and California.

    There are plenty more sites on it too if you want to learn more about the devastation that can be caused by one invasive species taking over a habitat.
  6. Nov 5, 2005 #5

    Couldn't the water intake lines be, um, far below the water line? These plants float, they're not like seaweed.
    Tangle up props? I admit a small dingy boat's prop would get tangled up; but an ocean ship's? Their props are the size of some building's rooms, are below the water line and are spun using engines with thousands of horsepower. I'm sorry, but I just don't see tangled props being a problem.
    It would block the sunlight, that's why it would be kept in check by rabid harvesting.
    Oil leaking wouldn't be as bad as you think. It's vegetable oil, not petroleum, so it'd be biodegradable. How would the oil get out anyway? It's in a fluid tight bladder. Are animals going to come along and poke holes in billions of float bladders?:confused:
    Maybe all the better then? That much more crop avalable to harvest.

    It does if you have a use for it. True, it wouldn't make sense to adapt normal hyacinths to salt water, because we humans have little use for them other than animal feed. A crop that catches solar energy and stores it in high energy density form isn't a worthless plant.
    I know all about invasive species, these would be different for several reasons. The aforementioned reason we have for harvesting them; what reason would we have to harvest the seaweed blight that you mention? Second reason is they're surface plants, so are easy to gather up. You know about garbage skimming ships, with the conveyer belt on the front? Well, imagine a giant oil tanker sized ships with a giant skimmer belt on the front, perhaps some on the sides as well. The ships cruise the oceans skimming, masticating and filtering out the oil from the plant slurry. Then they bring their energy load to countries' ports.
  7. Nov 6, 2005 #6


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    So, specifically, what genes are you going to splice in, and where?

    As for harvesting, they are harvesting that seaweed blight as fast as possible, just to keep it under control so it doesn't continue spreading. It's a losing battle; it only takes a few tiny plants to escape to create that sort of infestation. How do you plan to keep them contained? What happens when another, better form of energy comes along and nobody is interested in harvesting them anymore? Why introduce them to a salt water habitat at all? You're talking about not clogging props on large ships...are you planning on growing these in shipping channels? :bugeye:

    This sounds like a very poorly thought out plan that's nothing more than fantasy. You make it sound like someone can just pop a gene into a plant for some completely different function than that plant normally performs, in a way that the gene doesn't even function in the native plant. Beyond that, you have no plan for biocontainment...in fact, your whole premise is that you will release it into the wild to breed unrestricted.

    What's wrong with using vegetables to produce vegetable oil anyway?
  8. Nov 7, 2005 #7


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Let's just forget for now about the huge task of the genetic alteration and focus on containment. There is little hope for this project if you just say "we'll let it loose and see what happens". Perhaps if you took a page from freshwater aquaculture and proposed to do it in large controllable ponds that you manage at a facility, it might fly. You'll probably end up with better overall yield, you won't have to worry about the whole conversion to saltwater thing, and you consolidate your footprint and reduce transport costs by building the processing plant in the same location.

    You could also potentially reap other benefits from surrounding industry, warm water effluent (nuclear plants) could be reclaimed and used to extend/accelerate growing seasons, sewage or "contaminated" wastewater could be bio-remediated through you plant system. You're letting too much out of your control with your current idea and would benefit greatly from a more real-world management scheme.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?

Similar Discussions: Genetically Engineered Water Hyacinth?
  1. Genetic Engineering (Replies: 2)

  2. Genetic engineering (Replies: 21)