The (synthetic) elephant in the room

Embargoed until: Publicly released:

Scientists from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, including University of Otago’s Philip Seddon, want a more engaged discussion about synthetic biology – using genomic tools to change organisms – as a method to preserve biodiversity. Current conservation efforts have failed to slow the loss of biodiversity on Earth and the group say a lack of understanding and hesitancy means conservation biologists have not looked to the field of synthetic biology for solutions. The scientists believe that using genetic editing techniques such as CRISPR to help endangered species that have lost crucial genetic diversity, and to initiate gene drives (which promote inheritance of particular genomic changes) to eradicate invasive pests, synthetic biology has the potential to significantly boost conservation efforts.

Journal/conference: Trends in Ecology & Evolution

Organisation/s: University of Otago

Media Release

From: National Wildlife Research Center, USA

Is it time for Synthetic Biodiversity to Become a Conservation Tool?

Leading conservationists call for increased awareness and engagement with synthetic biology to aid biodiversity conservation.

Fort Collins, Colorado – Motivated by the continuing loss of global biodiversity, an influential group of scientists organized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature met in December 2015 in Bellagio, Italy, to examine how emerging synthetic biology tools might be applied to challenging  biodiversity problems, such as exotic wildlife diseases and invasive species.

Participants concluded that greater collaboration between synthetic biologists and conservationists is urgently needed to “adapt the culture of conservation biology to a rapidly changing reality,” according to Toni Piaggio, a participant in the 2015 meeting and a lead author of the groups findings, which was published online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution on Novemver 19, 2016.

The opinion piece is meant to serve as a call to arms. “The conservation community should reach out to the synthetic biology community and with them jointly engage in broad conversations with communities, scientists, and regulators across the globe. The future of nature may depend on our efforts at this critical nexus of biodiversity conservation and technology,” added Piaggio, a research scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center.

By all indications, current conservation approaches are not slowing global biodiversity loss. Even increasing areas of protected land and ocean has not been sufficient to stem the decline. But the potential of synthetic biology to aid and improve biodiversity conservation efforts, especially where other means have failed, is clear. First, conservationists must understand the potential benefits and risks of these new tools, and synthetic biologists must be educated about urgent conservation problems.

Synthetic biology is a rapidly expanding field where genomic tools are applied to the design and construction of novel biological organisms or systems. When applied to conservation, scientists can precisely and easily alter the genetic code of endangered and threatened species to enhance their survival or invasive species to reduce their numbers. Endangered species that have lost crucial genetic diversity might be restored to reproductive health, and those threatened by invasive diseases could be able to acquire genetic resistance. CRISPR/Cas9 endonuclease and other biological tools makes such precise genomic editing possible by allowing scientists to delete a target gene and/or insert a synthetic one. Gene drives, a natural process that can be harnessed to promote the inheritance of a particular genomic alteration, makes CRISPR even more powerful.

“With such tools in hand conservation of biodiversity could become proactive rather than reactive,” wrote Philip Seddon of the University of Otago’s Department of Zoology (New Zealand). For example, invasive mosquitoes in Hawai’i could be engineered so they would no longer be capable of transmitting the avian blood parasite that has devastated endemic bird populations.

Because of a general lack of understanding of synthetic biology technology and the understandable hesitancy to alter the genetic code of organisms, conservation biologists have not looked to the field of synthetic biology for solutions.

The paper’s authors firmly believe that synthetic biology techniques will be applied to global biodiversity issues with or without the involvement of expert conservation biologists. However, for the integration of conservation and synthetic biology to provide successful solutions to the biodiversity crisis, the need for careful oversight by those who deeply understand the workings of each particular ecosystem is essential. “Considering the moral, ethical, and aesthetic issues associated with intentional direct human modification of a wild species, we call for the development of a robust decision-making, risk-assessment framework, and research to be conducted on the application of synthetic biology to conservation issues,” wrote Gernot Segelbacher of the Wildlife Ecology and Management Department at the University of Freiburg (Germany). The authors further noted that this entire process must be both transparent and designed to engage the public early and often.

Critics have many concerns about the potential application of synthetic biology techniques to conservation. The authors of this paper do not seek to dismiss these concerns, but they do suggest these concerns are not so much facts as hypotheses to be tested through robust scientific discussion and research.


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