“Synthetic biology brings with it a powerful attraction, causing biology to veer towards engineering with its inherent approach of human problem solving,” three experts on biodiversity and conservation say in this week's issue of PLOS Biology. “It may prove to be a cure for certain wicked problems. But we suggest that now is the time to consider whether synthetic biology may be a wicked solution, creating problems of its own, some of which may be undesirable or even unacceptable in the area of biodiversity conservation.” The PLOS Biology essay was written by Kent Redford of Archipelago Consulting, William Adams of the University of Cambridge, and Georgina Mace of University College London's Center for Biodiversity and Environment Research. The three conservationists are the organizers of a conference on synthetic biology, due to take place next week in Cambridge, England.
Synthetic biology takes advantage of genetic engineering to tweak existing organisms for new purposes — for example, strains of E. coli bacteria that live on coffee, or produce better biofuels. More recently, researchers have talked about reshaping the genome of one species so that it reflects the traits of a closely related extinct or disappearing species — such as the American chestnut, the passenger pigeon, the Tasmanian thylacine or the Siberian woolly mammoth. Last month, that kind of de-extinction was discussed during a widely watched conference in Washington. This month's conference takes a closer look at the scientific and ethical issues relating to conservation. Would de-extinction truly bring back the species that were wiped out, or will they actually be novel species, even alien species? How will revived species interact with the other species that have taken their place? Will we actually value the “natural” world less, because we assume de-extinction can bring back our favorites? What happens if synthetic life evolves in unforeseen ways? What's the implication of having patented life forms in the wild? “A serious need exists for wider discussion of the relationship between synthetic biology and biodiversity conservation, and what choices society can and should make,” the three experts say. But that poses a huge challenge, because many people haven't even heard of synthetic biology yet.