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.