A Mammoth Distraction - Syn Bio and 'De-extinction'.


The distracting allure of a technofix is a common trick deployed by those pushing risky technologies. Nuclear power we are told might just solve climate change,  GM food could feed the hungry, "DDT is good for you" etc. But the latest eyecatching technofix under discussion at a conference in Cambridge this week is a real dodo: 'Synthetic Biology' we are now told will reverse extinction of species and conserve biodiversity. Really ?

Synthetic biology is a kind of extreme genetic engineering in which artificially constructed organisms, usually microbes in large vats, are 'programmed' to churn out industrial compounds - biofuels, plastics and so on. It's urgent to examine the conservation issues raised by 'Syn Bio' and indeed there are a wide range of ecological concerns: What happens if the engineered microbes get into nature?,  what happens when the microbe production systems replace farming? From what lands will sugars come that  feed the microbes? The UN Convention on Biological Diversity  was recently tasked with answering those questions by 193 countries. They further underlined the need for utmost precaution in this field.

But this week’s Cambridge conference seems to be heading off down a different track dubbed “de-extinction”. "Extinction might not be forever if synthetic biologists and others pursue their proposals to use advanced genetic engineering techniques to save endangered species and return extinct ones"  enthuses  conference organizer Kent Redford, a private consultant and conservation scientist.  Synthetic Biologists, we are told, might  be persuaded to rebuild perfect copies of the Great Auk, the Tasmanian Tiger, maybe even Neanderthals. The keynote is reserved for techno-fixer-in-chief Stewart Brand, best known for his advocacy of GM crops and nuclear power.  He has his own pet project to bring back the passenger pigeon. Brand hopes that "by the end of the century woolly mammoths will again tend their young in northern snows" - presumably grazing GM crops in the shadow of nuclear power plants.

 Welcome to a new and perverse version of 'conservation' . Its adherents quickly gloss past the actual destruction wrought by new hi-tech industries with a sunny optimism that their cleverness will deliver a synthetic type of ‘nature’ that better fits the business plan . "My chosen field of conservation started off with a conviction that it is a crisis discipline." explains conference organizer Kent Redford " I think that after 30 years of that, people have stopped listening to us. I think that the lesson should be that hope is the answer, and that hope will get people's attention. That's why I'm less concerned about the details of de-extinction than I am about the lesson of hope that it can convey."

Hope is a fine sentiment – but facing up to details is also in order. While not a single de-extinct mammal has yet been brought back to life by synthetic biology, there is nothing fanciful about the Synthetic biology industry itself. Global synthetic biology product sales were around $1.6 billion in 2011 and are expected to rise to $10.8 billion by  2016. There are over 20 synthetic biology derived products already in the market - mostly plastics, fuels and chemicals  and the big investors in the field are all too familiar : BP, Monsanto, Total, Exxon, Du Pont, Shell, Cargill, Chevron.

After an early fixation on biofuels, the industry is now  switching  its microbes to  ferment materials usually  extracted from plants - such as vanilla, rubber, saffron, patchouli and coconut oil. The new waves of investors are the world’s largest cosmetics companies, flavours and fragrances brokers  and food ingredient producers. They want to shift their sourcing away from small farmers . A third wave of Syn bio partnership is also just beginning that will take advantage of transforming fracked natural gas into high value products.

This real world Synthetic Biology industry, unlike Brand’s fanciful mammoths and passenger pigeons, is already  having a correspondingly real-world impact on the world's wildlands and biodiverse places. In Brazil several Synthetic Biology companies have set up production factories. These gobble the sugar cane that is damaging the ecologically fragile Cerrado region and pushing other agricultural production to deforest the Amazon. Globally plantings of sugar cane are at the leading edge of tropical land grabs ejecting biodiverse peasant agriculture in favor of pesticide-intensive, water hungry monoculture - none of which is good news for 'conservation'.

But the real near-term threat to conservation from Synthetic Biology may come from something as simple as ice cream.  In early 2014 Swiss company Evolva will commercialise their new synthetic biology vanilla in cahots with flavours giant  IFF (International  Flavours and Fragrances).  Produced from synthetically engineered yeast, Evolva claim their new vanilla can be labelled as 'natural' even though from yeast engineered with synthetic DNA. If they are successful in getting Syn Bio Vanilla marketed as 'natural' it could undercut the incomes of hundreds of thousands of vanilla farmers in countries such as Madagascar, Reunion, Comoros, Mexico and Uganda - forcing them to abandon vanilla cultivation. That too could be a disaster for conservation. Vanilla is a finicky orchid - it requires rainforest shade, careful tending and nitrogen fixing 'tutor' bushes - all of which conspires to produce an eco-friendly production system that protects the forest. if the bottom falls out of botanical  vanilla sales the pressure will be on to clear away the rainforest that nurtures the vanilla and plant sugar instead.

There’s a long list of other conservation questions one could ask about Synthetic Biology. They urgently need discussing and the less time wasted speculating about de-extinction the better. Maybe if we can understand the impact of the real Syn Bio industry we might prevent a few more extinctions of what we still have left. Somehow I don't think the mammoths or passenger pigeons will mind.