Climate Change

Genetic Engineers and Conservation Biologists: Scenes From a First Date

May 21, 2013

Woolly mammoths: coming soon to a prairie near you? Well, not so fast. Photo: Flying Puffin under a Creative Commons license.

By Craig Groves, Director, Conservation Methods and Learning

Sipping coffee one morning in early April, my eyes quickly darted to an article in my city newspaper by our local hunting columnist entitled “De-extinction coming to Montana.” I didn’t even need to read the column to know what was coming.

Having just read the cover story in the April issue of National Geographic on bringing back extinct species, our columnist — who has spent years fretting over a conservation initiative to restore bison to the grasslands of eastern Montana — now found good reason to fear that the reintroduction of woolly mammoths and other extinct species was headed our way.

Fast forward a week later and I was in Cambridge, England, along with Conservancy Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva, at an international conference organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society on the topic of synthetic biology and how it may influence the future of nature and conservation.

You may already be asking yourself, just what is synthetic biology? In a recent paper in PLOS Biology, Kent Redford and colleagues, borrowing from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, defined it as “a scientific discipline that relies on chemically synthesized DNA, along with standardized and automatable processes, to address human needs by the creation of organisms with novel or enhanced characteristics or traits.”

The Cambridge meeting brought together over 80 synthetic biologists and conservation scientists to learn about each others’ disciplines and explore how we could work together. (It may be easier to think of synthetic biologists as genetic engineers, as they definitely approach their discipline from an engineering perspective.)

From the perspective of a conservation organization like The Nature Conservancy, the meeting was really a first, significant opportunity to better understand how synthetic biology could contribute to the practice of conservation. As for those woolly mammoths, their return to Montana is neither technically or politically feasible for at least decades.

And de-extinction? It is but one high-profile tip of the iceberg of the vast and rapidly growing field of synthetic biology.

As the framing paper for the Cambridge conference explained, synthetic biology is already influencing our daily lives (think GMOs) and may well be transformative across six sectors: bio-energy, agriculture and food production, environmental protection and remediation, consumer products, chemical production, and human health. The revenue from GMOs alone in the U.S. is already valued at over 2% of GDP.

The Cambridge gathering explored both the promises and pitfalls of synthetic biology. For example, former TNC scientist and now chief scientist for WWF-US Jon Hoekstra noted that about 24% of the world’s land remains up for grabs in terms of its use, much of that land is degraded, and synthetic biology techniques show real promise in helping restore these lands.

Stanford marine biologist Steve Palumbi reported on innovative research he leads in American Samoa to identify and protect coral reef species that have genetically evolved to tolerate warm waters, findings that could help the Conservancy and other conservation organizations confront the challenge of warming oceans and coral bleaching.

Jay Keasling, a professor of chemical engineering at UC Berkeley and one of the foremost authorities in synthetic biology, reported on his lab’s successful efforts to synthesize the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, research that has been supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in their global efforts to eradicate malaria.

Despite the promise of synthetic biology, there are no shortage of legitimate concerns ranging from gene leakage into the environment, to a weak regulatory environment, bio-terror, and indirect negative impacts on biodiversity (such as through “green grabbing” or the appropriation of lands for synthetic fuel purposes).

As Redford et al.’s PLOS paper points out, there seems to be very little middle ground — “utopias and dystopias seem to be the only scenarios possible” is a widely quoted sentiment of synthetic biology. These worries were often evident at the Cambridge conference, even if a bit one-sided. As conference organizer Redford joked: “Conservation biologists get more pessimistic when they drink, but synthetic biologists get more optimistic.”

Redford and his colleagues have identified five key issues related to the confluence of synthetic biology and conservation that need to be seriously considered by all of us involved in nature conservation:

  • • Extinction may not be forever. We are on the verge of re-creating extinct species like the passe ger pigeon, yet doing so should give us pause to consider a number of scientific, conservation, political, and philosophical issues.
  • • Synthetic life evolves. As it evolves, it raises serious questions for science and conservation such as how these new organisms will interact with existing species and whether the conservation community will consider ecosystems that contain these new species as enhanced or degraded.
  • • Our working definition of “natural” is no longer fit for purpose. The impacts of climate change are already forcing us to re-think what is “natural” as species shift their ranges into previously unoccupied habitats and novel ecosystems are created.The introduction of synthetic species raises the very same issues.
  • • Nature’s services can be synthesized. As the Conservancy advances its efforts to incorporate ecosystem services into our conservation practice, how will we think about organisms that are created specifically to generate some of these services such as pollution control or carbon sequestration?
  • • Synthetic life delivers private benefits. Synthetic biology is already producing products that are netting large corporations enormous profits with negative impacts at times for small producers’ livelihoods and for conservation land use.

There are clearly risks, benefits, gains, and losses on both the private and public side at stake. How will the Conservancy’s growing corporate relations efforts best navigate these murky waters?

For those who may be interested in learning more about synthetic biology and its role in conservation, there are many useful papers to read or blogs, podcasts, and TED talks to investigate.

A good starting point would be to read the framing paper for the Cambridge conference — “How will synthetic biology and conservation shape the future of nature?” — along with the PLOS Biology paper previously referenced.

You can also check out Ed Yong’s excellent blog on the topic for National Geographic, an intriguing two-part podcast with Kent Redford posted by the staff of Scientific American Stewart Brand’s (of Whole Earth Catalog fame) enthralling TED talk on the “dawn of deextinction,” and a fascinating recent forum on de-extinction hosted by the National Geographic Society entitled TEDxDeExtinction.

In a rousing after-dinner talk at the Cambridge conference, Harvard social psychologist and best-selling author Daniel Gilbert reminded us that one of the most fascinating elements of the human condition is our ability to imagine the future, followed by several sobering accounts of how lousy we are at predicting our own futures.

Regardless of what we may think about synthetic biology, there is at least one future we don’t have to imagine and that we can predict fairly reliably — synthetic biology is going to significantly influence our lives and our conservation work in the years ahead. Whether it will be a force for nature or not will hinge in part on how we in the conservation community engage with our bio-engineering colleagues.


Redford, K.H, W. Adams, and G. Mace. 2013. Synthetic biology and conservation of nature: wicked problems and wicked solutions. PLOS Biology 11:e10011530.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Photo: Woolly mammoth diorama by Flickr user Flying Puffin under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Craig Groves is currently a Senior Scientist in TNC’s Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP), a collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) that helps fund and facilitate multi-disciplinary working groups to address some of conservation’s most challenging problems. More from Craig

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