Frankly it was all a set up. In the delightfully romantic setting of an old Cambridge college in springtime, complete with free drinks and delicious food, the organizers of last weeks 'Future of Nature' Conference smiled on conspiratorially as their contrivances to introduce two awkward strangers played out over 3 days.
The strangers in this case were not so much boy-meets-girl as naturalist-meets-geek and what they purportedly had in common was biology. The Future of Nature had been billed as an encounter between the synthetic biology community (biotech scientists practicing an extreme form of genetic engineering that builds artificial organisms) and the conservation biology community who are still trying to hold back the frontier of wildlife destruction for non-engineered nature.
Those of us invited to the encounter had been led to believe it was a chance to learn and to have robust discussions about the possible impact of this controversial technology. There was some of that as spelled out in a useful framing paper . But from the opening speech by convenor Kent Redford of the Wildlife Consercvation Society it was clear that another matchmaking agenda was at play. "It feels like a first date" explained one participant as the relationship metaphors came fast and thick - how can these two communities "engage"? What do we want from each other? Are we going to see each other again?
To my mind there were some disturbing roles being projected onto the two 'sides': Synthetic biologists were presented as 'young', optimistic, maybe a bit flighty - looking to the more mature discipline for a chance to do something meaningful. Some even complained about being spoken to as children. The conservation biologists were presented as older, wearied by life. They were encouraged to be entranced by the youthful positivity of the other community but worried that all their 'monkeying around' was a bit irresponsible. There were promises offered that conservationists could recapture a bit of their youthful optimism if the practitioners would just throw off old taboos around technology and flirt a bit with the racy new field - there was even a suggestion they might pay the synthetic biologists for their services. The synthetic biologists kept beckoning the old conservationists to 'come through the door' as Imperial College professor Paul Freemont offered it, and conceive of new plans together. Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation even proposed they could make babies together -albeit cloned babies from previously extinct animals. I kept wondering about the other long-term partners of the environmental movement who hadn't been invited - the social movements, farmers, indigenous communities (there was one token indigenous person) - feeling as if someone somewhere was being cheated on.
Despite the flowing drinks and mood music the courtship didn't necessarily go smoothly. Conservationists in the room couldn't help but experience a feeling of alarm that if they embraced synthetic biology too enthusiastically they might wake up the next morning with serious regrets as they had with other enticing sounding technologies such as biofuels. Indeed biofuels seemed to be a large part of what the syn bio crowd had in mind.
The question of synthetic organisms getting into the environment and turning into invasive species was on everybody's mind since the problem of organisms getting where they shouldn't is always a persistent headache for conservation. It also seemed to alarm the 'protect nature' crowd that synthetic organisms would need to be fed plenty of sugar from tropical lands leading to large-scale land use change. The "re-engineer nature" crowd counter-offered that syn bio could help intensify agriculture so that less land was needed for a growing population or that synthetic bacteria could be deployed into degraded soils to help roots grow and slow desertification. With their penchant for 'protected areas' and dislike of 'degraded lands' some of those theoretical promises were sweet talk for the conservationists.
Like a persistent matchmaker the organizers kept returning doggedly to the question of what project, scheme or handy technofix might the two ‘sides’ be able to dream up together. There were a smattering of half-baked proposals in response. Maybe the synbio kids could engineer corals to resist ocean acidification or adapt to warmer seas? Maybe there’s a genetically engineered insect, virus or bacteria that can wipe out zoonotic disease or infestation? How about growing synthetic rhino horn or elephant tusk in a lab. "Can you stop cows farting?" asked one former world bank conservationist hopefully - or even better do away with cattle altogether? asked another.
As the mood got dark a few conservation biologists entertained being desperate enough to grasp at fixes or at least to inhale the promise of synthetic biology and see what it did for them. "I'm sick of our work being just managing the inevitable decline of the planet" confided one senior conservationist. Others worried that when the species are gone they might belatedly wished they'd tried out the extreme fixes to save them so maybe they should start now. Just as Geoengineering and Nuclear power have found a handful of advocates among desperate climate scientists so it seems that there are a few conservation biologists persuadable to get into bed with synthetic biology as a plan B for saving what they care about.
All of which was maybe predictable from the beginning. A perfectly constructive meeting could have been simply a clear-eyed examination of how syn bio might impact biodiversity sharing what has already been learned so far. Instead there was relentless peer pressure to make friends and find common ground. Of the 111 civil society groups who had called for a moratorium on synthetic biology and were already working on Syn Bio issues only 2 were invited to speak. The emphasis instead was on presenters who were 'engaging' for the first time. It was a narrow crowd too - largely drawn from UK and Europe - whose politics was much more comfortable working with more business-friendly modes of conservation - market mechanisms and soft law. Indeed the loudest round of applause was for a comment attacking regulatory approaches and government intervention.
Will the conservation biology community start to embrace the use of synthetic biology in the wake of this unusual meeting of worlds? After getting dunk together in springtime optimism there was a sense that some of the conservation crowd were ready to dabble. They may take a more sober second look once the bonhomie has faded. But more clear is that the synthetic biology community are equally excited about the prospect of using conservationists and conservation rhetoric to achieve their interests. Watch this space for rhino-horn-in-a-lab and baby cloned extinct animals.