I’m sitting in one of the gardens in Clare College, part of the history university of Cambridge, surrounded by beautiful trees, flowers, and even the occasional bumble bee hovers past me.
I’ve come here for a conference titled “How will synthetic biology and conservation shape the future of nature?” which has been organised by the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Synthetic biology hasn’t been given an exact definition as yet, but generally you could say that it is a fusion of engineering and microbiology. It can be described as “it is the scientific focus on the design and fabrication of biological components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world, and on the re-design and fabrication of existing biological systems.”
By having the ability to read genetic code, write genetic code with the four bases we have (A, C, T, G) and create new genetic code that is, so far, not found in any living creature yet, the opportunities of synthetic biology are, depending on how imaginative you are, endless. Extinct animals could be resurrected, medication with a specific purpose could be created, food could be grown for millions more people, biomass fuels could be grown at unprecedented scales.
But with such power, as always, comes great responsibility. And here the road becomes a little hazy, if not completely laid. How will these “resurrected” creatures re-integrate into a world that is (potentially) vastly different environment to what they were used to? How will algae that produces biofuels interact with its local habitat: because it is adapted to survive in certain conditions, it may render natural algae defenseless when it comes to surviving in their ponds, algae is also at the bottom of the foodchain – how will synthetic algae affect energy transfer as consumers get eaten?
All these questions, right now, do not have any concrete answers, purely because we do not know what is going to happen yet.
Certain rhetorics are being used to put forward various arguments of why synthetic biology is good or bad. Synthetic biology seems to have adapted both: scientists working in the field are excited about the opportunities that synthetic biology brings. Conservationists are concerned that as we do not know what synthetic biology can create, how will it interact with life on earth as we know it?
There seem to be some misunderstandings, and sometimes just sheer lack of willingness to communicate. Synthetic biology is a technical field little understood by non-experts. This makes it difficult for some people to take it on board, and get there heads around it and how it will affect nature. Not only that, but there are those who do not want any one (or thing) interfering with nature any more than we already have as a species.
So, this conference aims to bring together conservation experts and synthetic biology experts, and any other shareholders so that they can learn from each other’s expertise, to see how they can make synthetic biology work. It hopes to answer two questions:
1) How might the tools and capabilities of synthetic biology best be put to use in the service of the goals and objectives of conservation biology?
2) How can the practice of synthetic biology be illuminated and modified based on the values of conservation?
I’m looking forward to getting stuck into this subject, learning about the unknown, and seeing how synthetic biologists and conservationists can share their expertise and learn from each other, in the hope that it will bring some clarification on how to proceed with synthetic biology.
You will be able to follow the discussions form the following three days at the conference with the hashtag #futureofnature on Twitter.