Synthetic Biology and Conservation: Brave New World?

Earlier this month I had the chance to attend the Future of Nature conference, which was designed to start a conversation between those working in two rather different fields: synthetic biology and biodiversity conservation. Synthetic biology, I learned, is not easy to define, but has to do with the application of engineering principles of design and function to biological organisms. This has many implications for conservation, such as the possibility of bringing back extinct species (which predictably captures all the headlines). The conference provoked some really interesting debate and raised important questions. It certainly got me thinking more about what the future might look like in a world shared with synthetic organisms. I don’t have a coherent story to tell, but here are the collected thoughts that I took away from the event, starting with the mundane and working through to the serious.

A general observation on the event is that I really liked the format. There was no particular pre-defined ‘output’ to which delegates at the meeting were expected to contribute. Rather, it was billed as an opportunity to “bring together the synthetic biology and the conservation practitioner communities to discuss the implications that synthetic biology may have on the natural world and conservation…” I rather like such open-ended events that encourage new conversations, and I helped to organise a similar one on conservation and computer games back in 2011. Long may they continue.

It was agreed by almost everyone present that the least interesting topic under discussion on the theme of the conference was de-extinction. This is very exciting technology, but as a conservation strategy the resources-in-to-benefit-out ratio appears to be hopeless. In fact, if efforts to bring back what has been lost divert vast resources from conserving what we still have, then extinct species might actually be the ultimate diva species – undermining conservation of the extant from beyond the grave.

Several presentations demonstrated that synthetic biology has the potential to be applied to specific conservation problems. For example, we heard of an Imperial College project that seeks to promote root growth in Sahelian plants, thereby reducing the likelihood of desertification (described in some detail by Ed Yong in his blog on the event). I won’t launch into a critique of the specifics of this project as it is very impressive work by some talented undergraduates, but it did raise for me some interesting questions about what synthetic biology could do. For example, could it be possible to grow rhino horn in the lab, or to 3D print it? If so, could this be used to reduce the demand for wild rhino horn? Sadly the answer is probably no, if studies of the cultural value placed on wild-harvested meat are anything to go by. An alternative would be to use synthetic biology to make the horns of wild rhinoceroses poisonous to humans – a version of which has already been tried by a South African ranch. Is it ethically acceptable to deliberately poison an item that may end up being consumed by humans, even if that consumption is illegal? I would argue that it isn’t, but I’m sure many would disagree.

A further philosophical question raised by synthetic biology is whether synthetic organisms should be seen as part of biodiversity and therefore something to be conserved in their own right? The CBD definition of biological diversity includes “…variability among living things from all sources…”, which would seem to capture synthetic as well as ‘natural’ diversity. I wonder how many conservationists would reject this interpretation and seek a revision of the CBD definition if synthetic biology really takes off? This might seem like a semantic quibble, but revising a core article of conservation’s major international convention would require a lot of careful thought.

The most powerful session of the conference in my view was on the potential for broader, indirect impacts of synthetic biology on conservation. The preceding discussion of specific applications for conservation was very interesting, but the message of this session was that synthetic biology will change the global economy in ways that will have significant impacts on conservation, whether we like it or not. For example, synthetic biology could be used to produce all kinds of products in bubbling vats of engineered bacteria; from medicines to meat. This sounds fantastic, until we consider that these products will still require material inputs, or ‘feedstock’ in the language of synthetic biology. The feedstocks are likely to be derived from monoculture crops, and those will have to be grown somewhere (with associated demands for inputs, many of which may be very carbon-intensive). So a transition from cattle as a source of beef to bacteria as a source of beef would entail a seismic shift in the land use pattern of the meat industry. This might be good for conservation or it might be bad; we just don’t know. What we can be sure of is that it would be much more significant, and for many more species, than fiddling around with rhino horns.

Synthetic biologists at the conference seemed to be unshakeably optimistic about the consequences of their work for the natural world. The conservationists were certainly less so, and I doubt I was alone in imagining future scenarios in which synthetic biology introduces change that is anything but desirable. One increasingly plausible future for me is the Brave New World scenario, in which some people who acquire the power to control technologies like synthetic biology or the construction of bionic body parts become increasingly isolated from everyone else; effectively two ‘castes’ as Huxley had it. Once established as such separate groups, it would be a short step for the elite to ‘other’ the underclass and rationalise their subjugation, or even their extermination. This remains science fiction at the moment (although some might argue that the concentration of elite power in contemporary society isn’t so different), but the rise of synthetic biology suggests that the technological side of this equation is closer to reality than we might think.

Steve Sanderson, the former President of WCS, closed the meeting with some wise words. He made the point that “Pandora didn’t have a ‘no box’ option”. We are in the same situation with synthetic biology – like it or not it is here, it is growing, and it is going to have a big influence on both human society and nature. It may be tempting to remain on the sidelines speculating on how this might all go terribly wrong, but conservation can only cope with a certain amount of cynicism. Instead, it seems wise for conservationists and synthetic biologists to get to know each other early and to think deeply about each other’s work and ideas – a process that began, and hopefully did not finish, at the Cambridge conference.

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7 thoughts on “Synthetic Biology and Conservation: Brave New World?

  1. Your description of the optimism of the synthetic biologists reminds me of my plant physiology lecturer who, in 1979 was full of green revolutionary zeal. He believed that what he and his colleagues were doing would solve the world’s problems. He had no time for ecologists, or for thinking about the wider implications of the green revolution. He had not learned that everything is connected to everything else, and that there is no such thing as a “free lunch”. Whatever benefit arises in one place will be a loss to something somewhere else.

    It would be constructive if the synthetic biologists and the conservationists got together at the earliest convenience to look a the “benefits” of synthic life in relation to the potential unitended negative consequences. I doubt this will happen though. People seem wedded to the idea of silver bullet solutions and will latch onto whatever offers hope as a way out of whatever fix they are in, regardless of longer term consequences. It will take some exceptional leadership and vision to bring synthetic biology and conservation together, to work through the trade-off between one course of action and another. Lets hope that leadership of this calibre exists.

  2. I wonder what ethical/practical lessons can be gained from considering two issues which, although perhaps less extreme than synthetic biology, still holds some parallels. Firstly, there is a movement to preserve rare breeds of domestic plants and animals (e.g. traditional breeds of cattle, or varieties of apple), not just for cultural or aesthetic purposes but also because they might be more productive, resilient or efficient than modern breeds in a warmer or wetter climate, or when fossil fuel and fertiliser prices rise. They are also conserved to preserve genetic diversity. The example of back-breeding of Heck cattle and other projects might provide some interesting lessons. Secondly, we do have various synthetic ecosystems preserved around the world, particularly where introduced plants have radically altered the ecology of an area, forming entirely novel ecological arrangements but which are valued for their novelty, such as Kentucky bluegrass. The most extreme example of this might be Green Mountain National Park, on Ascension Island, which is made up almost entirely of species from all over the world which were deliberately introduced as part of a wild victorian attempt at geo-engineering, as well as an ecological study.

    Finally, Margeret Atwood’s dystopian novel “Oryx and Crake” is an interesting fictional take on extinction, synthetic biology, climate adaptation, and the neoliberalisaiton of nature.

  3. Hello, I have come upon your blog by chance. I trained as a geochemist, was a mineral exploration geologist and now I design and run dialogue processes mostly for developers and regulators, be they of policy or systems (natural and not). I’m at the beginning of project that seeks to get conservationists to link their purposes with the prevalent and future political concerns of government (local and national) and of people. I was looking for something other, but followed an enticing trail, to reach here.
    Having read the article that delivered the name of your blog, and a few of your posts, all of which I found stimulating and slightly alarming, I suggest you explore the irony of your desire to think like a human rather than a person (English dictionary definitions provide a good starting point). The theme running through the writings is one of conflict between experts or elites of different persuasions, and the incapacity of expert-led processes to result in success in “real-life”. What you describe as enjoyably stimulating about the conference – the open ended format allowing people to consider ideas from different perspectives – was the freedom from the confines of your fruitful years of specialisation and research – the day job – unleashing your capacity for empathy and to absorb complexity as seen from other points of view. Everybody likes a bit of that. So, congratulations, there you achieved a bit of thinking like a person – and you enjoyed it!

    • Very clever Catrin but philosophically flawed. In my dictionary a Person is an individual Human. I think to Think like a Human is to connect with Society and Nature in a subjective way. It is humans who have empathy and the ability to absorb complexity ie humane. Persons on the other hand are generally focussed on their own survival as individuals. I think this Blog is correctly named.

  4. Pingback: Illustration: Synthetic Biology; Turning bacteria poop into a hot commodity | Small Organisms Big Benefits

  5. As a wildlife conservationist who focuses on human-wildlife conflict, I suppose I find it fascinating to consider the ways in which synthetic biology has the potential to completely shift our relationship with wild animals, animals in general, and the very concept of “wildness.”

    There are several wildlife species (esp. large mammals) — you mentioned one of them, rhinos — who are under severe threat from human activity, and for whom all conservation intervention (education, legislation/punishment, reintroduction/translocation, captive breeding, etc.) has been hopeless. For rhinos, you’ve already pointed out one way in which synthetic biology could help, as well as potential ethical problems. But what if we simply engineered rhinos with no horns? What about other species, and more complex problems — for example, conflict between wolves and ranchers in the American west? What if we could engineer a New Wolf with a genetic, heritable repulsion to cattle as prey? Or just make some minor tweaks to their behavioral suite so that they’re, overall, more skittish and less likely to habituate to the presence of humans?

    In some ways, this is just an extension of conservation efforts we already undertake — trying to reduce the habituation of wild species to avoid conflict through behavioral modification — but boy, what incredible nuance. In comparison to the scalpel approach of synthbio, classic aversive conditioning is like performing surgery with a sledgehammer.

    And would people object to such tinkering with “wild” animals? Maybe, but this might be a good opportunity to learn that it’s not a dichotomy, after all, but rather a scale. The distinction between wolf and dog is a gradient; wildness bleeds into boldness bleeds into habituation bleeds into domestication.

    So a lion is no less a lion because it’s got a gene dart that prevents it eating goats; an elephant is no less an elephant because it now keeps its distance from pineapple farms. And perhaps pushing some species a little farther up the wild –> domestic scale would be better for their overall survival. Would you rather have semi-tame cheetahs, or no cheetahs at all?

    And imagine how much improved the human relationship to nature could be with some minor safety modifications — hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park with no concerns about bear or mountain lion attacks, poison ivy reactions, or snakebites; shipwreck survivors/injuries at sea not drawing the attention of sharks; seek-help or isolation genes in animals that contract rabies or distemper, preventing spread in a wildlife population.

    Anyway, that’s just idle speculation, but what a world it could be!

  6. Pingback: What is conservation? | Thinking like a human

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