In July, the book I have long been writing with my friend and colleague Kent Redford was finally published: Strange Natures: conservation in the era of synthetic biology (Yale University Press). It explores the implications of novel genetic technologies for nature and its conservation.
I had forgotten how long it takes to go from the idea of a book to actually holding it in your hand. The germ of this book was back in 2013, when Kent organised a meeting in Cambridge on synthetic biology and conservation (helped by me and the hugely missed Georgina Mace). But the book itself has older roots, in our running discussions about nature, culture, technology, and naturalness in conservation. We talked about writing a book together for several years, before starting to develop an outline in 2015. We finally found a publisher in 2017, when Yale University Press took us on. We started writing in 2018, and submitted a draft manuscript in December 2019. We then got (and took on board) comments from a wide range of reviewers, and rewrote it, as COVID began to shut everything down. We submitted the final version in May 2020. A year later, Strange Natures was published (in June 2021 in the US, and a month later in the UK).
The book is, fittingly perhaps, a hybrid between an academic and a trade book. We set ourselves the task of writing in a way that could be understood by a general reader – by someone interested in nature and the world, without any advanced training in natural or social science. But we also wanted to speak to conservation scientists and synthetic biologists.
I had forgotten how tough it is to write across disciplines. Kent is an ecologist, I am a geographer. Neither of us is trained in genetics, biotechnology, biological engineering or any of the other disciplines that dominate synthetic biology. We had to work hard to make complex science clear – and wrap it within a compelling narrative. Every sentence of the book demanded a self-conscious act of translation.
Co-authorship also involved a lot of micro-translation between Kent and I as writers. Despite 15 years of productive shared learning, we still think differently about lots of things. We carry different disciplinary baggage, we have different suspicions and assumptions, and naturally call on different kinds of explanations. We often found ourselves coming at questions about synthetic biology from different directions.
The way we are educated and trained shapes not just what we know and think is important, but the way we think about it. Our discipline, and the company we keep, shape the language we use and the style in which our ideas and arguments presented. I discovered, for example, how loose my writing (as a political ecologist) could be, how dependent on the assumption that the reader (or co-author) would recognise what was unsaid, or would share assumptions about how capitalism or government regulation, or society worked.
Writing Strange Natures demanded a lot of talking (thank goodness for Skype) and rewriting, to develop a common voice and an agreed argument. One of us initially drafted each chapter, but by the end every paragraph had been rewritten so completely that the book’s DNA is profoundly mixed.
There was a lot to write about. The field of synthetic biology is shockingly novel. At times it feels like science fiction. Many articles are highly speculative, but the technologies of gene editing are becoming standard in biological and medical experimentation. Novel genetic technologies are being widely applied across fields as diverse as agriculture and food production, biofuels, biopharma, human medicine and public health. Commercial investment is skyrocketing. The global biotechnology market in 2020 was worth about U$ 752 billion US dollars, and had a predicted compound annual growth rate of 16% to 2028.
The ambition and power of synthetic biology is potentially huge. In 2015, Science made CRISPR as its ‘breakthrough of the year’. Not without reason, Jennifer Doudna, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020 with Emmanuelle Charpentier, entitled her 2017 book with Samuel Sternberg A Crack in Creation: the unthinkable power to control evolution.
The world of conservation is also showing increasing interest in the power to edit the genes of wild species for conservation purposes: to use gene drives to control invasive species; to manipulate the genomes of endangered species (or their microbiomes) to increase resistance to wildlife diseases (think chytridiomycosis); to bring back extinct species or recover genes missing from extant populations; to manipulate genomes to increase resilience to anthropogenic change (think making corals hot water resistant); or to develop novel organisms to treat stubborn pollution. But such ideas are not just novel, they are controversial. There is increasing resistance from some environmental groups to the release of gene-edited species, and widening debate about risk and technology governance.
The debate about conservation applications of gene editing (and particularly the use of engineered gene drives) is starting to ramp up. In 2015, IUCN convened a meeting in Bellagio in the Italian Alps to discuss the future of synthetic biology, and its role in biodiversity conservation. At the 2016 World Conservation Congress, IUCN resolved to develop a policy on biodiversity conservation and synthetic biology. Two years later IUCN published an Assessment of Synthetic Biology and Biodiversity Conservation (by a task force Kent led). The 2020 Congress (held in September 2021 in Marseille) resolved to conduct a new consultation, from which a new policy should, in theory, eventually emerge.
It is quite possible that novel genetic technologies will, in future, be used by conservationists (the idea has supporters as well as detractors). Debate about these applications are extremely important, and perhaps IUCN is right that this debate needs to be careful, slow and involve broadly consultation. But the world will not wait for conservationists to make up their minds about conservation applications. The first moves to release engineered wild organisms are already being made, in fields such as agriculture and in public health. Biotech corporations see gene editing and synthetic biology more broadly as the fuel for the next tech-based growth industry. Decisions about the gene editing of wild-living organisms will be taken far from conservation conference rooms, and are unlikely to be overly affected by possible impacts on wild nature.
As we say in our book, these are strange times. The field of synthetic biology is advancing at warp speed, with new scientific innovations and would-be commercial applications announced weekly. The landscape has changed dramatically since Kent and I started to write Strange Natures. It is hard to underestimate the significance of the new power to make direct deliberate alterations to the genomes of living organisms. The implications of the field for conservation are profound. Hopefully the book will help kick-start debate.