New paper says discussion on benefits and risks

of synthetic biology to conservation is necessary 

From re-creating extinct species to the risk of genetically modified super-species

Upcoming conference at Clare College in Cambridge, England, on April 9-11 will examine the nexus of synthetic biology and conservation

NEW YORK (April 2, 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 and continuing dialogue between members of the synthetic biology and biodiversity conservation communities, according to authors of a new paper, available here.

According to the paper, 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 annually. Many extol the virtues of synthetic biology as providing potential solutions to human health problems, food security, and energy needs. Advocates also see in synthetic biology tools for combating climate change and water deficits. Critics warn that genetically modified organisms could pose a danger to native species and natural ecosystems. The paper’s authors 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.

The authors of the essay—published in the online journal PLOS Biologyinclude: Kent Redford of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Archipelago Consulting; Bill Adams of the University of Cambridge; and Georgina M. Mace of University College London (UCL).

“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 Kent Redford, lead author of the article. “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 of the paper, along with other scientists and conservationists, will discuss the potential implications that synthetic biology may have on the natural world and conservation at the Synthetic Biology and Conservation Conference, convening at Clare College in Cambridge, England, on April 9-11.

John Robinson, WCS Chief Conservation Officer, 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.”

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

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 discussions and policy decisions by conservation scientists and practitioners. They include: 

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

Co-author Georgina M. Mace of the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, UCL, said: “The discussion between conservation and synthetic biology is a necessary one. We need to have a clear-eyed examination of the issues and decisions that could alter life on Earth.”

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