• Synthetic biology refers to technologies that allow humans to make precise alterations to the genes of organisms.
• Synthetic biology applications have important positive and negative implications for biodiversity conservation depending on how they are designed and targeted.
• Potential benefits range from protecting threatened species to providing synthetic alternatives to wildlife products.
• Potential detrimental effects include changes to ecological roles played by target organisms, and negative impacts on the livelihoods of indigenous and local communities who largely depend on biodiversity.
• The use of synthetic biology needs to be informed by case-by-case assessments, guided by empirical evidence, and incorporating traditional knowledge, religious and ethical values in decision-making.
Certain synthetic biology applications, depending on how they are designed and targeted, have the potential to enhance or disrupt biodiversity conservation, acting through both direct and indirect pathways.
Potential positive impacts on conservation
Engineered gene drives and other synthetic biology applications could complement current efforts to halt biodiversity loss and enhance biodiversity conservation, for instance by eradicating invasive species through engineered gene drive systems or by modifying genes to increase the ability of organisms to resist climate impacts. The engineering of microbes to biosynthesise products sourced from threatened species, such as a medically-valuable molecule found in the blood of horseshoe crabs, are already underway.
Potential adverse impacts on conservation
There are concerns that synthetic biology is fraught with uncertainty, and could have detrimental effects. These may stem from the movement of organisms carrying engineered gene drives impacting non-target populations or species, or from changes to ecological roles played by target organisms and broader ecosystem effects.
The introduction of biosynthesised wildlife products may have negative socio-economic effects on livelihoods and on production and consumption patterns. For instance, a legal market for synthetically manufactured products could render attempts to curb illegal trade in wild-sourced products difficult or impossible, especially when the illegal trade is currently run by corrupt syndicates. Synthetic biology applications may affect the cultures, rights and livelihoods of local and indigenous communities, which manage, govern, reside in or depend on a large part of the world’s biodiversity.
New technologies may divert funding from other conservation approaches, whereby the urgency and importance of biodiversity conservation rooted in addressing fundamental socio-political problems is ignored in favour of synthetic biology applications.
Unintended impacts from other sectors
Applications that are not designed with a specific conservation goal could have an indirect impact on biodiversity. For example, agriculture is one of the major sectors for investment, research and development of synthetic biology. Potential impacts from agriculture include the creation of new invasive species and crops that are better adapted to marginal land, or to previously unusable land. Potential benefits to biodiversity include reducing the application of fertilizer and better forest restoration.