21 Mar 2019 Story Ecosystems

Risks and potential rewards of synthetic biology

Photo by Wikimedia

Did you know that scientists can modify microorganisms like E. coli by rewriting their genetic code to turn them into tiny living factories that produce biofuel?

Or that Baker’s yeast can also be reprogrammed to derive an antimalarial drug called artemisinin, which is normally sourced from the sweet wormwood plant?

These are examples of products made possible by the advanced genetic-engineering technology known as synthetic biology, a term for which no internationally accepted definition exists.

Applications of synthetic biology are advancing beyond the manipulation of microbes to yield desired chemicals. Strategies to release genetically engineered organisms into the environment to permanently alter entire populations of target species have been proposed as a means to eradicate vectors of diseases, eliminate invasive species, and lend resilience to threatened plants and animals.

A possible game-changer with important potential benefits and risks, synthetic biology has been identified by international experts as an emerging issue of environmental concern with global implications, and features as one of five topics in UN Environment’s recently published Frontiers Report.

Applications of synthetic biology

Many commercially available synthetic biology products have been developed to provide alternatives to existing high-value commodities, especially those dependent on the petroleum supply chain and non-renewable resources. Synthetic alternatives and replacements for substances conventionally derived from nature are also gaining ground in research and market spaces.

Modern Meadow, a biotech company, aims to deliver a sustainable leather alternative with properties and texture similar to animal-derived leather. Synthetic biology has also opened up a new landscape for advanced materials with novel functionalities and performance, such as materials that can self-assemble or self-repair. 

The recent emergence of CRISPR (pronounced crisper and short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) as a gene-editing tool has enabled even more precise and inexpensive methods of engineering individual organisms, biological systems, and entire genomes.

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CRISPR-Cas9 (pronounced crisper and short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a customizable tool that lets scientists cut and insert small pieces of DNA at precise areas along a DNA strand. Photo by the National Human Genome Research Institute, Betheseda, MD, USA

Synthetic biology could indirectly benefit conservation efforts by allowing the development of artificial alternatives to commercial products normally sourced from the wild. For example, the blood of the horseshoe crab is a major biomedical commodity used to test pharmaceuticals for bacterial contamination. Unsustainable harvesting is pushing the species towards global extinction. A synthetic substitute has been developed that could reduce or replace the need to harvest the endangered crabs. Likewise, engineered microbes and microalgae capable of producing alternatives to omega-3 oils could lessen pressure on declining wild fish stocks.

Potential negative impacts of synthetic biology tools

However, the intentional or accidental release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment could have significant negative impacts on both human and environmental health.

“Misuse of these technologies and a failure to account for unintended consequences could cause irreversible environmental damage,” says Pinya Sarasas, a UN Environment specialist coordinating the Frontiers Report. “The potential far-reaching impacts of synthetic biology demand governance methods and research guidelines that promote its ethical and responsible use.”

Under the precautionary principle, stringent risk assessment and the inclusion of diverse stakeholder perspectives should be applied in the development and handling of innovative synthetic biology applications and products. The precautionary principle states that when human activities may lead to unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, action should be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.

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A laboratory mouse in which a gene affecting hair growth has been knocked out (left), is shown next to a normal lab mouse. Photo by Maggie Bartlett, NHGRI. (Wikimedia)

Another emerging development is Do-It-Yourself Biology, also known as “DIY Bio”. It’s a movement of “citizen scientists” interested in synthetic biology experiments that has become an international phenomenon over the last decade. Often with little prior knowledge of the field, enthusiasts meet in makeshift labs to take crash courses in biotechnology and conduct hands-on experiments. Simple protocols found online and specialized kits costing US$150–US$1,600 have driven the movement’s rapid expansion. DIY Bio labs can be found in most major cities, and by 2017 there were about 168 groups worldwide.

Regulating the use of easily accessible and low-cost technologies like CRISPR will likely be a challenge for authorities. There is also growing concern that the technology could be misused by extremist groups.

A group of experts, mandated by the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity will deliberate on synthetic biology issues. The Convention’s Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice is expected to further discuss the issue in preparation for the Biodiversity Conference to be held in Kun Ming, China, in 2020.

For further information, please contact Pinya Sarasas