Can synthetic biology save wildlife?

Apr 02, 2013

What effects will the rapidly growing field of synthetic biology have on the conservation of nature? The ecological and ethical challenges stemming from this question will require a new dialogue between members of the synthetic biology and biodiversity conservation communities, say Kent Redford of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Archipelago Consulting; Bill Adams of the University of Cambridge; and Georgina Mace of University College London (UCL) in a new paper published 2 April in the open access journal PLOS Biology.

The field of synthetic biology—a discipline that utilizes chemically synthesized DNA to create organisms that address human needs—is developing rapidly, with billions of dollars being invested every year. Many advocates extol the virtues of synthetic biology as providing potential solutions to human health problems, food security, and energy needs, as well as potential tools for combating climate change and water deficits. However, critics warn that genetically modified organisms could pose a danger to and natural ecosystems. The authors of the new paper assert that, in any scenario, a dialogue on how to use and restrict synthetic biology methods and products must be initiated for the benefit of the world's societies and decision makers.

"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. "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."

The authors, along with other scientists and conservationists, will discuss the potential implications that synthetic biology may have on the natural world and conservation at the upcoming Synthetic Biology and Conservation Conference, convening at Clare College in Cambridge, England, on April 9-11.

John Robinson, Chief Conservation Officer at WCS, said, "Synthetic biology is an extremely important and burgeoning field, but its consequences to biodiversity and conservation are currently poorly understood. By bringing together the best thinkers in these two disciplines we hope to gain a better understanding on synthetic biology's opportunities—and potential impacts—to conservation."

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

In the paper, the authors explain the need for new strategies in the conservation community to cope with the challenges of synthetic biology. They highlight five emerging issues requiring discussion and policy decisions by scientists and practitioners:

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

Explore further: France fights back Asian hornet invader

More information: Redford KH, Adams W, Mace GM (2013) Synthetic Biology and Conservation of Nature: Wicked Problems and Wicked Solutions. PLoS Biol 11(4): e1001530. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001530

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Nature Commentary investigates synthetic-biology disaster

Feb 29, 2012

Experts say at least $20 million to $30 million in government research is needed over the next decade to adequately identify and address the possible ecological risks of synthetic biology, an emerging area of research focused ...

The governance of synthetic biology

Feb 08, 2012

The Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center is launching a new web-based Synthetic Biology Scorecard, designed to track federal and non-federal efforts to improve the governance of synthetic biology resear ...

Social challenges of synthetic biology examined

Aug 01, 2011

In the wake of last year's creation of the first self-replicating cell with a synthetic genome – which was quickly followed by a request from President Barack Obama for a report by the Presidential Commission for the ...

Recommended for you

Genetically tracking farmed fish escaping into the wild

19 hours ago

European sea product consumption is on the rise. With overfishing being a threat to the natural balance of the ocean, the alternative is to turn to aquaculture, the industrial production of fish and seafood. ...

France fights back Asian hornet invader

22 hours ago

They slipped into southwest France 10 years ago in a pottery shipment from China and have since invaded more than half the country, which is fighting back with drones, poisoned rods and even chickens.

Tide turns for shark fin in China

22 hours ago

A sprawling market floor in Guangzhou was once a prime location for shark fin, one of China's most expensive delicacies. But now it lies deserted, thanks to a ban from official banquet tables and a celebrity-driven ...

Manatees could lose their endangered species status

Aug 19, 2014

About 2,500 manatees have perished in Florida over the last four years, heightening tension between conservationists and property owners as federal officials prepare to decide whether to down-list the creature to threatened ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Whydening Gyre
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 02, 2013
More importantly - what effects will it have for future biological life...
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (2) Apr 02, 2013
Can synthetic biology save wildlife?
Nope, but the case of bees and bat decline from GMO intoxication indicates, it could destroy it.