Synthetic biology and conservation: opposites or on the same side? [DEBATE]

In the past few years a relatively new field of science has surfaced into mainstream discussions, especially those concerning biodiversity and nature conservation – synthetic biology. Some are simply ecstatic of its progress and findings, while others are simply terrified by some of its potential consequences. In an attempt to address the issue, albeit from a rather single side, an international team of researchers have gone to great lengths to publish a paper in which they outline the potential benefits of synthetic biology to the environment and human society, debunk some myths concerning synthetic biology and call for a solid conversation between members of the synthetic biology and biodiversity conservation communities.

synthetic-biologyThe field of synthetic biology has made great leap forwards in the past few years alone, which is why maybe it has prompted so many worried looks. Wait, what’s synthetic biology though? Well the easiest way to describe it would be to define it as a field of science that deals both with the creation and modification of biological entities like enzymes, genetic circuits, cells or other biological systems in order to meet certain goals. It’s maybe easier to offer some examples: resurrecting extinct species like the wholly mammoth or the dodo, lab-built organisms that can eat up waste and release useful byproducts, genetically modified crops that withstand pests or drought and so on. These are just a few examples of synthetic biology at work.

The authors of the paper note that currently billions are invested annually in field research, and point out that synthetic biology could offer potential solutions to human health issues, food security and energy needs. Critics, on the other hand, think otherwise and believe some synthetic biology introduced innovations might not be safe for the environment and biodiversity. Some species have already adapted to habitats that are currently left devoid of the species that also used to share them and which are now extinct, and introducing them back in might serve a problem. The main issue, as you can imagine, lies in genetically modified crops. In the US alone, 90% of all crops are genetically modified and a number of anti-GMO groups have not hesitated to voice out their concerns on more than one occasion. 

“At present, the synthetic biology and conservation communities are largely strangers to one another, even though they both share many of the same concerns and goals,” said lead author Kent Redford of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “An open discussion between the two communities is needed to help identify areas of collaboration on a topic that will likely change the relationship of humans with the natural world.”

Synthetic biology

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group,  calls synthetic biology “an extreme form of genetic engineering” and an emerging technology that is “developing rapidly yet is largely unregulated.  However, are these concerned exaggerated?

“Our strategies for conserving ecosystems, species and genetic diversity, formulated over the past century, are profoundly challenged by synthetic biology,” said co-author Bill Adams in a press release. “The implications of this emerging field must be incorporated into conservation theory and practice if efforts to save biodiversity are to be effective.”

Changing natural ecosystems and altering the way we produce food is something that is deeply deserving of our attention and mandates well thought regulation, still man has been manipulating its environment for thousands of years. Synthetic biology, in theory at least, seems like a tool through which discrete and well targeted actions can be taken in the favor of nature and society, alike. A tool that can help save polar bears, battle pollution and alleviate hunger is definitely worth thinking out first, and bashing later – if required.

The paper authored by Kent Redford of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Archipelago Consulting; Bill Adams of the University of Cambridge; and Georgina M. Mace of University College London (UCL), and published in the online journal PLOS Biology, five key points that require extensive  discussion between members of the synthetic biology and biodiversity conservation communities. These are:

  • The possibilities of recreating extinct species.
  • How synthetic organisms will interact with existing species.
  • Our current definition of what “natural” is.
  • Using synthetic biology to produce natural services for humans (e.g. carbon sequestration, pollution control).
  • The use of synthetic life for private benefits, as in the applications for industrial processes, agriculture, and aquaculture; how will a balance be struck between private risk and gain vs. public benefit and safety?

All these and much more will be discussed at the upcoming Synthetic Biology and Conservation Conference convening at Clare College in England on April 9-11.

Time for your input, ZME readers. Is synthetic biology good or bad? Voice out!

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