How does synthetic biology affect sustainability?

Synthetic biology has the potential to change humanity’s relationship with Earth. This is because synthetic biology could potentially change biospheres. It could furthermore indirectly affect other parts of the planetary system such as the water cycle. There are some obvious application areas where humanity already uses biological material – cultivating animals and plants as food and building material, for instance. There are also less obvious areas, such as using genetically engineered organisms to affect ocean salinity.

But synthetic biology is not a panacea. It may stress human society and the planetary system, thus posing drawbacks in terms of sustainability. What happens to individuals whose livelihoods are displaced by synthetic biology, as would occur when newly created organisms obviate the need for certain types of farming activity? What happens to an ecosystem if a pest is bioengineered out of existence? How well does our in vitro understanding of enzymes and proteins really translate in vivo? Such questions reveal another drawback of synthetic biology: our limited ability to predict its consequences on complex systems. We spoke to six experts to hear their thoughts on the relationship between synthetic biology and sustainability.

Herbert Sauro – Principal Investigator at University of Washington’s Predictive Sys-Bio Lab

We now have an unprecedented ability to write DNA, but do we know what we’re writing? In most cases, I believe we don’t. The reason is we still don’t have a firm grasp of the relationship between genotype and phenotype. Protein folding is still a largely unsolved problem. More crucial, though, is our need to better understand the biophysics of the molecular milieu and appreciate cells as dynamic, intelligent systems. Fundamental questions on these issues can only be answered with basic research. When we tinker by rewriting DNA, we often throw wrenches into the works and, lo and behold, our designs falter.

For synthetic biology to breach the next advance, I believe we need to better understand how cells operate systemically. Only then can synthetic biology develop into a fully-fledged engineering discipline as successful as microelectronics, bridge-building, or aircraft design.  

Synthetic biology no doubt holds enormous potential for mankind and the planet, if used in a constructive and enlightened manner (which itself is a debatable point). Science fiction writers have tapped a rich vein of ideas when it comes to reengineering life. But we need to be aware of what we don’t know in order to move forward. 

Robert Sidney Cox III – Independent Gene Expression Biotech Consultant

The universe is on an ever-downward spiral towards increasing entropy. But locally, inside living cells, order is maintained for a time. Information, manifested as genes, can be inherited. We are poised to take the reins of thermodynamic control away from evolution to engineer life – including ourselves. 

Synthetic biology has the potential to completely transform the world: we could control the salinity of the oceans, alter the atmospheric balance of oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, and produce vitamins and medicines within our own bodies. We could become shepherds of every living cell, masters of life – if we don’t squander Earth’s resources on ridiculous pursuits.

We need to elevate all our energy and food production technologies, not just synthetic biology, to save Earth and reverse climate change. We need renewable energy sources, safe nuclear power, green fossil fuel extractions, and smart geoengineering. We need synthetic biology to redesign useful plants, animals, and microbes. This is the only game worth playing for our species’ survival.

Dana Perls – Senior Food and Technology Campaigner with Friends of the Earth

Synthetic biology and genetic engineering techniques like gene editing present new risks with the potential for significant negative impacts on biodiversity across the globe. Even worse, those impacts would hit small farmers, indigenous people, and local communities in developing countries the hardest. Many of these new GMO crops may rely on toxic pesticides linked to cancer and responsible for destroying bee populations around the world. There are gaping holes in the science about health impacts for consumers, and antiquated federal health assessments cannot adequately determine safety.

There is a class of new products derived from genetic engineering that are intended to replace real plant-based commodities such as vanilla, stevia, coconut, and other high-value crops. Not only do people’s livelihoods around the world depend on growing these valuable crops, but many of the crops are culturally important and ecologically critical. We need to invest in the solutions that have proven to be sustainable for people and the environment. We need to invest in our future based on real data for sustainability and protection of biodiversity, not investor hype.

James Russell – Associate Professor in Biological Sciences at University of Auckland

Synthetic biology will change how we do conservation on this planet by allowing us to edit species’ traits at the molecular level. For example, we could gene-edit non-native pest species to go extinct, or gene-edit threatened native species to have greater resilience to threats. Whether any such intervention on a species is widely supported will probably depend on a case-by-case basis. For example, for a gene-edited pest the goal might be extinction, and so the gene edit goes extinct with it. For a gene-edited threatened species, on the other hand, the “saved” species may no longer be viewed as the original target of conservation. Ultimately, the opportunities posed by synthetic biology for species conservation will realign debates on environmental values by positing both whether gene editing is right, and whether it is safe.

John Cumbers – Founder of SynBioBeta, a biological engineering network

Few realize how much biotechnology is already a part our daily lives. Nowhere is this more evident than in synthetic biology, which views DNA as a programming language for our world. Five areas where synthetic biology can help humans live more sustainably include: farming, consumer products, meat 2.0, flavors and fragrances, and beauty and personal products.

Synthetic biology can help farmers reduce their dependence on petroleum-based fertilizers – firms like Pivot Bio, for instance, are creating microbes that add nitrogen to the soil. For consumer products, synthetic biology can create sustainable alternatives – see Proctor & Gamble’s EC30 cleaning product. For meat 2.0, animal-free meat (like that of Impossible Foods) reduces carbon costs. With flavors and fragrances, there isn’t enough to go around – but firms like Conagen can cultivate microbes to produce them. Finally, for beauty and personal products, few realize how many of their ingredients are made by killing animals – firms like Geltor can recreate these ingredients by using synthetic biology.

Liz Specht – Associate Director of Science and Technology at The Good Food Institute

A great opportunity for addressing global sustainability is through radically transforming our food system, and synthetic biology provides powerful tools to do this. Cultivating and domesticating species to feed ourselves is a rudimentary form of synthetic biology. But historical methods have limitations. This is evident in animal agriculture – modern breeding and husbandry have increased conversion ratios of crops into animal protein, but thermodynamics make this process inherently inefficient: animals burn off 90% of the calories they consume.

Recently, there has been a surge of interest in producing meat, dairy, and egg products using inputs from plants, microbes, and cultivated animal cells. Meat, dairy, and eggs are, after all, simply mixtures of molecules arranged in certain structures. These same components can be obtained elsewhere in nature and assembled into familiar-tasting foods. Synbio isn’t required for this process, but it accelerates our ability to refine and improve it. For example, microbial fermentation can produce proteins, fats, or flavorings that are difficult to source from the plant kingdom. By making non-animal-derived products just as “craveable” to consumers, we can accelerate behavior shifts toward more sustainable diets. We can affect one of the most resource-intensive industries on Earth.