WORDS BY RUTH H. HOPKINS
Borgs are a newly-discovered linear chromosome that could help to control greenhouse gas emissions. But true adaptation requires humility as well as ingenuity.
The world is on fire.
Here on my Reservation, in the middle of Dakota Treaty lands, the smoke and haze from Canadian wildfires burning thousands of miles away permeated and darkened our skies for weeks. The bright blue heavens turned gray while the sun smoldered a crimson red, and we were warned not to go outside as air quality became unhealthy and the stench of blackened ancient forests filled the lungs of anyone who ventured out.
Word soon spread via moccasin telegraph and social media of entire Indigenous communities being wiped out by the fires, from British Columbia to California, but even in the midst of such tragedy, we haven’t stopped fighting—willing to give our lives to protect their ancestral lands and fellow creatures who also call it home.
And it’s not just fires. Everything is going to extremes. Hurricanes and storms have grown in frequency and intensity. If a region isn’t coping with historic flooding, they’re trying to survive epic droughts while ecosystems crash, biodiversity plummets, and scores of organisms go extinct under our watch. As ice caps and glaciers melt at breakneck speed, we’ll soon discover what age old viruses and bacteria have lain dormant and frozen beneath the permafrost from before the existence of modern man.
The climate emergency is no longer contained in the distant reaches of our collective imagination, as some far-off doomsday calamity that we procrastinate about solving. It’s here.
Remarkably, while catastrophe unfolds before our very eyes, there are still climate deniers who willfully and gleefully swallow the lies of fossil fuel giants and fascist political pundits. Others prefer to duck their heads in the sand, perhaps believing that ignorance really is bliss. Some are wracked with guilt and hopelessness, desperately wanting to help stop the massive tidal wave that is the climate crisis but feeling powerless to act because they don’t know where to start.
The climate emergency is no longer contained in the distant reaches of our collective imagination.
Don’t despair. While the disheartened cry out to their gods, there are glimmers of hope among us. Benevolent human beings are working quietly and diligently, using the curiosity the Universe has blessed us with, to find new ways to combat the End of Life on Mother Earth.
Jill Banfield, a geomicrobiologist at the University of California, was analyzing DNA she found in the mud in her backyard when she discovered a unique linear chromosome that included genes from a variety of microbes. Because of their ability to integrate new genetic material, she named them Borgs, after the assimilative sci-fi aliens featured in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Since then, Borgs have also been found in a number of different locations.
Researchers have been able to collect some 19 samples of Borgs, and sequence four complete genomes. This revealed “the existence of a substantial lineage of related entities” with extraordinary, shared characteristics, making them a genuinely new find. The groups have been color coded for identification purposes.
So what exactly are Borgs? They are archaeal extrachromosomal elements with distinct evolutionary origins—little floating genetic toolboxes. They are neither alive nor dead. What makes them so special and exciting is that they can expand reoxidation and respiratory capacity, thereby augmenting methane oxidation. If scientists can figure out how to utilize them like CRISPR, the tech used to edit genes (which is likely), they may be able to use Borgs to help control greenhouse gas emissions.
The methane cycle is most closely linked to climate change. It is a greenhouse gas that is roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and approximately one gigaton is produced annually by methane-producing archaea. Borgs can provide methane oxidizing microorganisms with the genes necessary to lessen the release of methane into earth’s atmosphere.
Agriculture is a major producer of methane. Banfield and other scientists are now working to find ways that Borgs, which contain extra copies of genes needed for methane breakdown, can be used to eliminate this problem.
This is not the time to give in to the cowardice of environmental nihilism. We are not dead.
While this breakthrough is indeed thrilling, as my mother who is from Appalachia says, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Borgs are just one device that may be utilized to help us dig our way out of the seemingly bottomless pit that the ruling class and their patriarchal, vacuous, unrelenting, ever-devouring, dead-eyed, death-dealing, war machine, corporate-capitalist imperial settler state has put us in.
Another recent finding that’s gaining momentum is that the purveyors of Western thought have suddenly realized that Indigenous people are profoundly gifted at protecting, conserving, and revitalizing the ecosystems they’ve called home for thousands of years.
But let’s step back and look at the big picture. Indigenous peoples not only have superb land management skills, but we also outlasted just about every cataclysm you can think of, including genocide, relatively intact, because of our ability to adapt. Like Chief Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull) once said, take the good and leave the bad. We are masters of adaptation. However, beware. Adaptation requires the humility to accept that we have a lot to learn, even from the smallest of organisms, or a single strand of chromosomes that happen to carry the genetic material needed to eat methane, a primary driver of climate change.
It’s true—nothing will ever be the same. We’ve passed the tipping point. Yet, we remain. This is not the time to give in to the cowardice of environmental nihilism. We are not dead. As a Oceti Sakowin (Dakota/Lakota Sioux) woman descended from chiefs, medicine men, matriarchs, wagon burners and exiles, I know that surviving an apocalypse is already possible, because Indigenous peoples already have.
Humanity must adapt. We must accept that fossil fuels are dead and use renewable sources of energy. We must stop allowing the razing of old growth forests for profit, the poisoning and waste of our freshwater, and the destruction of our oceans, wildlife, and natural habitats. Our priorities must change. Hierarchies and old systems must fall. Balance must be restored. Takuskanskan, the motion of the Universe, implores us. They demand it. The key to beating climate change is decolonization. We must indigenize the world.