Updated: Mar 6
The Rise of Phantom Ecology
How Catastrophe and Climate Change Combined with Synthetic Biology will Change How We Interact with Our Natural World.
Phantom Ecology is not where we want to be, but it is where we are, and what we are steadily racing towards.
Conservation biology will have to come to grips with the harsh reality that our world’s physical properties have changed, therefore it will not be possible to restore ecosystems to carbon copies of their former selves. Chasing these phantom ecosystems, which are past ecosystems for which little data exists to support their actual species assemblages, leading to the impossible task of establishing realistic baselines for ecosystem management, devolving into circular arguments among scientists, is bearing little fruit in saving species. For example, Florida Keys reef scientists (myself included) have been trying to establish baselines for coral percent cover for decades. The fossil record is incomplete, and it has proven difficult to establish a detailed picture of what the reef was like prior to the advent and widespread use of scuba and rigorous, quantitative research.
Most reef scientists surveyed in my recent publication stated their reef baselines were based on quantitative assessments of the reef made in the 1970s, long after humans would have had significant impacts on the Florida Keys marine ecosystems. Scientists' lack of past success in establishing consensus baselines, as well as a lack of innovative technology to address these issues have led to the current likelihood that corals will transition to a net dissolving state by the end of the century (1).
We must take responsibility for our collective lack of success. Moreover, over 80% of coral scientists interviewed in the study suggested coral cover would not increase in the Florida Keys over the next 100 years (2). Less than half of these same scientists thought that coral transplanting activities were having a positive impact on restoration activities, and most scientists stated that marine reserves, by themselves, would not lead to increased coral cover. Regarding marine conservation, one thing that has engendered broad agreement is our collective lack of success.
Realistically, reef scientists cannot solve the problem alone. Humans are changing the chemical and physical constituents of our natural world. How do we address this? Along with setting aside much of the world as reserves as recently deceased yet renowned biologist E.O. Wilson suggested (3), as well as the more efficient use of natural resources, including the universal adoption of renewables; enter Phantom Ecology.
Defining Phantom Ecology
Phantom ecology is a combination of restoration ecology and synthetic biology that will involve the engineering of single and even multicellular synthetic or semi-synthetic organisms with the goal of restoring ecosystem function. Phantom ecology will involve the establishment of new baselines and the engineering of new environments, creatures, and housings. The related field of synthetic biology involves manufacturing single-celled microorganisms from basic chemicals. Phantom ecology will eventually encompass the production of multicellular organisms that will interact for the purpose of maintaining or restoring ecosystem function (and thus ecosystem services) in a changed world. Phantom ecology has the explicit goal of manufacturing new life in a changing world. Based on the substantial yet dwindling value ecosystem services freely provide, a large market for this has emerged.
Will Xenobots Help Clean Up Waterways?
Out of this World
There is no shortage of examples of environmental catastrophe, although other than biotechnology, where are the sources for new insights on how to handle our earthy troubles? As unlikely as it seems, the answer may be, in part, Mars. Phantom ecology will involve the task of colonizing and terraforming Mars. Once thought of as science fiction, new scientific discoveries such as bacteria that thrive in low-light, infrared-rich environments (4), and molecules such as nicotinamide mononucleotide that may support human longevity (5), are quickly vetted for deep space applications. NASA’s recent discovery of organic matter on mars has only increased excitement for the possibility of past, and future life on the planet. Fundamentally, scientists are searching for signs of past life, which may inform how we manipulate beings at home, and perhaps species utilized in space in the future. New insights here may yield clues on how to maintain ecosystem services on earth.
SpaceX, a multi-billion-dollar private space company, was founded with the goal of enabling people to live on other planets. The bioscience that will have to be developed to enable human deep space travel and interplanetary colonization, along with phantom ecology, may feed off one another, perhaps leading to a boost in our ability to address environmental challenges here on earth.
We are in the midst of the 6th mass extinction. This fact alone has the capacity to terminate human existence. Reports suggest if we continue to disturb natural habitats, as well as overexploit fisheries and continue to foul our land and water at current rates, we may lose up to half of all animals within the next 100 years (6). E.O. Wilson describes this diversity of species that we depend upon as our billion-year-old environmental support system (7). Under normal background rates, it would have taken up to 10,000 years for the same number of vertebrates to disappear as did in the past 100 (6), and I fear even this rate may accelerate further. Mass mortality events are also increasing. For example, in recent years, a sudden drop in temperature caused a mass die-off of crabs and starfish off the North Sea coast of the United Kingdom (8). This drop in temperature may actually be due to record warming in the Arctic due to warm air intrusion, a phenomenon that has also increased as of recent. A recent study published in the journal Nature Communications provides evidence for the link between Arctic warming and more extreme winters in the United States (9). There is also the case of the Saiga antelopes, where 200,000 individuals died within 3 weeks in 2015, which has also been recently linked to climate change (10). Both the occurrence and magnitude of mass mortality events worldwide have dramatically increased over the last century (11).
Even Remote Environments are Collapsing
-Engineering to Retain Function
Further supporting our need for dramatic action, species decline, and habitat degradation occur in the most remote and sparsely inhabited regions of the world. Remote areas of the great barrier reef are bleaching, and uninhabited areas of the Amazon are modeled to dry and shrink over the coming decades due to climate change (12). Therefore, setting aside more land and sea alone will not be sufficient measures to solve the problem of extinction. To address the decline in remote and unexploited areas, organisms will need to be engineered to maintain function.
The Culmination of Phantom Ecology – A Freakish World Indeed
Perhaps in the Amazon, drought-resistant genes will be transferred to native species to maintain the forests’ hydrologic cycle via evapotranspiration. We see in America; that genetically modified chestnuts are being released into the wild. Perhaps Crispr corals, along with their heat tolerant zooxanthella, will maintain ecosystem structure and function. What we will invariably produce are ecosystems that never existed, although quite often science has not revealed precisely what environments were like prior to overexploitation by humans. Therefore, phantom ecology is not simple restoration, but creation. Today, many of our natural areas are nothing more than large ever-degrading managed parks. Phantom ecology is where the de-extinct mammoth meets the genetically altered reindeer; a semi-synthetic ecosystem contrived by man. Phantom ecology might be considered a branch of restoration ecology, although explicitly dedicated to the use of tools, and bioengineered organisms to reshape environments based on the acknowledgment and realization that what was no longer is or will be in the near future. It is time to focus more of our energy on this type of biology. It is time for us to develop an industry with the explicit capacity to aid in the recovery of ecosystems in order to maintain some semblance of ecosystem function in a world faced with many large-scale environmental catastrophes. And of course, there is NO guarantee of us succeeding at that either.
Synbio will also engineer life for beauty’s sake. Although the purpose of this may not be for an ecological function, an engineered, glowing flower may find itself in a field, and it may interact with the species around it in a new “synthetic” way. Now, going from new flower patterns to plants engineered to pass on these genes to offspring is a jump, but it is plausible, particularly if synthetic biology continues to proliferate in both science and culture.
You may have noticed the images in this post. What are they? The first image looks like a whale breaching with a forest fire in the background. The other is of some type of bedazzled coral. The fact is, all of these images were fashioned by A.I., based on my text commands. The A.I. mined its vast store of image data to come up with something new. This is astounding. The question is, are we close to this level of creativity in life? Are people ready for it? Ready or not...
The Rise of Phantom Ecology Video
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1. Eyre, B. D., Cyronak, T., Drupp, P., De Carlo, E. H., Sachs, J. P., & Andersson, A. J. (2018). Coral reefs will transition to net dissolving before end of century. Science, 359(6378), 908-911.
2. Muldrow Jr, M. (2016). Assessing reef experts' baselines and values regarding the Florida Keys coral reef ecosystem implications for historical ecological knowledge of the region (Doctoral dissertation, George Mason University).
3. Wilson, E. O. (2016). Half-earth: our planet's fight for life. WW Norton & Company.
4. Dennis J. Nürnberg et al. 2018. Photochemistry beyond the red limit in chlorophyll f–containing photosystems. Science 360 (6394): 1210-1213; doi: 10.1126/science.aar8313
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6. Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., Barnosky, A. D., García, A., Pringle, R. M., & Palmer, T. (2015). Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances 1 (5), e1400253.
7. Wilson, E.O. (2018). The 8 million species we do don’t know. The New York Times. Retrieved from
8. Carrington, M. (2018). Mass die-off of sea creatures follows freezing UK weather. The Guardian. Retrieved from
9. Cohen, J., Pfeiffer, K., & Francis, J. A. (2018). Warm Arctic episodes linked with increased frequency of extreme winter weather in the United States. Nature communications, 9(1), 869.
10. Kock, R. A., Orynbayev, M., Robinson, S., Zuther, S., Singh, N. J., Beauvais, W., ... & Rystaeva, R. (2018). Saigas on the brink: Multidisciplinary analysis of the factors influencing mass mortality events. Science Advances, 4(1), eaao2314.
11. Fey, S. B., Siepielski, A. M., Nusslé, S., Cervantes-Yoshida, K., Hwan, J. L., Huber, E. R., ... & Carlson, S. M. (2015). Recent shifts in the occurrence, cause, and magnitude of animal mass mortality events. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(4), 1083-1088.
12. Shiogama, H., Emori, S., Hanasaki, N., Abe, M., Masutomi, Y., Takahashi, K., & Nozawa, T. (2011). Observational constraints indicate risk of drying in the Amazon basin. Nature communications, 2, 253.