Synthetic Biology and Conservation: An Imminent Encounter

09 July 2013 | Article

Synthetic biology is a new technology with enormous promise to change the human relationships with the natural world and with fellow human beings. Though there is no commonly agreed upon definition synthetic biology can be thought of as ‘‘a scientific discipline that relies on chemically synthesized DNA, along with standardized and automatable processes, to address human needs by the creation of organisms with novel or enhanced characteristics or traits.’’ 

Billions of dollars are being invested globally, and developments of novel applications are constantly being reported. Huge claims are routinely made about the potential benefits of synthetic biology in six major sectors: bioenergy, agriculture and food production, environmental protection and remediation, consumer products, chemical production and human health.

Synthetic biology has the potential to transform many aspects of human economy and society, and the environment, not least as a key technology in an emerging ‘‘bioeconomy’’. Citing the impacts of existing biofuel production, some are deeply suspicious of its possible impacts: the ETC Group suggests that ‘‘The proposed use of synthetic microbes in the production of the next generation of fuels, medicines and industrial chemicals may massively increase human impact on biodiversity, while accelerating biopiracy and making a mockery of any notion of ‘benefit sharing’.’’

The field of conservation has not engaged with synthetic biology and most conservation professionals have never heard of it. Yet synthetic biology, in whatever form it ends up taking, has major implications for conservation, both directly and indirectly. In April 2013 the Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcs.org) convened a meeting to bring together the conservation practitioner and the synthetic biology communities entitled “How will synthetic biology and conservation shape the future of nature?” Through three days of presentations and discussion the conservation community and the synthetic biology community learned about each other’s practices, hopes, and fears and worked to find some common ground.

The direct form of synthetic biology interacting with conservation involves the promise of producing novel organisms, substantially modifying existing organisms, or even restoring extinct species. This third category has drawn a great deal of the attention recently. The other two categories are of greater concern through the unknown interactions between novel organisms and natural systems, both purposeful and accidental.

The second type of interaction between synthetic biology and conservation is indirect – and probably more likely to happen sooner and affect a much larger number of people and diversity of areas. All of these promised synthetic biology products will require feedstocks and places to put the production facilities. And all of them will change established modes of production with unknown knock-on effects on landuse, land values, resource consumption, and those people currently producing “traditional” versions of these products. As these factors shift in response to anticipated synthetic biology production so too will the contexts in which conservation is done and the threats and opportunities it will face.

Synthetic biology extends existing biotechnology capabilities in several ways, and because of this it may exacerbate the potential for socio-economic and environmental impacts. The technology promises faster, cheaper and more tightly designed innovation in crop systems. It depends on sophisticated research capabilities, and new ‘living systems’ are therefore more likely to be developed in the industrial world, especially by private interests. Advances in crop systems through the application of synthetic biology are therefore vulnerable to exactly the same critiques as existing biotechnologies: they will offer more dramatic advances, faster, and less under the control of developing world research agencies and producers. Where the outcomes are positive, the benefits will be felt quickly and widely. If the outcomes are negative, those impacts will also be felt early and widely.
At this time we do not know what will happen when synthetic biology practice meets conservation practice. There has been some speculation, but data cannot be gathered on what has not yet happened. Yet it is imperative that conservation practitioners engage with synthetic biologists, not only to influence the practice to become ‘‘pro-conservation’’, but also because without such informed engagement it would be too easy for policymakers and politicians to assume that synthetic biology solutions can provide easy fixes to intractable and expensive conservation actions and shift attention and support away from existing conservation efforts. The intersection between synthetic biology and conservation will take place in regions with large local populations who rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. Great care must be taken to ensure the wants and needs of such people and try to ensure that the novel goods and services made possible through synthetic biology will not only be “pro-conservation” but also “pro-poor.”

 

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