Conservation workers will this week seek help from an unlikely set of allies. They will ask researchers working on synthetic biology – the science of creating advanced manipulated organisms – to help them save the world’s endangered creatures and habitats.
Threats that conservationists believe could be countered by a new generation of manipulated organisms include the fungus epidemics that are currently devastating frog populations around the world and which are also attacking bat colonies in the United States. In addition, ocean dead zones – where marine life has been killed by algal blooms – could also be tackled by synthetic biology, they believe.
“We think this is the time to ask science if it can help,” said conservation biologist Kent Redford, who has organised this week’s meeting in Cambridge, Synthetic Biology and Conservation, on behalf of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We face the prospect of losing a great deal from the natural world and we have to think of solutions that could be generated by all sorts of different techniques, including those involved in synthetic biology.”
Synthetic biology is the technology of designing and building biological devices from scratch. “It goes far beyond tinkering with existing genomes of organisms by adding one or two extra genes,” said Professor Paul Freemont of the Centre for Synthetic Biology at Imperial College London, who will be a speaker at the conference. “We can now chemically synthesise very large sections of DNA, and that allows us to design biological systems from scratch, just as an engineer designs and builds a piece of equipment starting from basics.”
An example of the power of synthetic biology is provided by biological sensors that are now being made to check water purity. “In Bangladesh there is a real problem of water wells that are becoming poisoned with arsenic from natural contamination,” said another conference speaker, Professor Richard Kitney, who is also based at the Imperial Centre for Synthetic Biology.
“Similarly, parasites like the ones responsible for bilharzia can infect wells in Africa and Asia. We are developing biosensors that can pinpoint these sources very easily and cheaply.”
A sample of water from a well is shaken in a container containing one of these biosensors. If arsenic or parasites are present, the sample will turn a fluorescent colour. “These biosensors can be manufactured using simple off-the-shelf components,” said Kitney. “They are simple and easy to use.”
Another example is provided by the plant hormone auxin, which scientists have learned how to manufacture cheaply using modified bacteria. “Auxin is a powerful stimulant of root growth and that makes it very useful when tackling certain ecological problems,” said Kitney. “In particular, it can stimulate the growth of grasses in areas into which deserts are spreading by boosting grass growth with synthetic auxin – which can hold back the spread of deserts.”
Another prospect, raised by Kitney, was the creation of pesticides less harmful than the ones now linked to colony collapse disorder, which is devastating bee populations around the world.
Freemont also backed the idea that synthetic biology could help to tackle the problem of algal blooms which are created by nitrogen fertilisers that are flushed from farms into streams and rivers and ultimately into oceans, where they stimulate the growth of algae that can form thick mats. These blooms are often linked to loss of oxygen in the water and the death of fish and other marine creatures.
“One idea is to create a synthetic alga that makes some form of biofuel,” said Freemont. “Blooms would be highly lucrative and could be harvested. Thus the water would be cleared up from the revenue made from the alga’s biofuel.”
Another example was highlighted by Jim Haseloff of Cambridge University, another conference speaker. “We can think of creating artificial wetlands to treat polluted waters instead of using costly industrial processes if we engineer things carefully. We can return to processes that are more natural.”
Other ideas include the creation of organisms that might protect animals from fungal attacks. At present two major fungus epidemics are threatening wildlife. Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis was first noted when it attacked frog species in Costa Rica in 1987. Now it threatens more than 2,800 amphibian species. Similarly, the fungus white-nose syndrome has killed nearly 7 million American bats since 2006.
Several other ideas will be outlined by speakers. However, it is the timing of the debate between conservationists and researchers working on synthetic biology that is really important, said Redford. “The crucial point is that we have this conversation earlier rather than later. Past examples suggest there is an early period in the unrolling of a new technology in which the public perception of it is very sensitive to its first uses. The first thing that this technology does could have crucial repercussions for its take-up. Was it something good or something bad? That will determine whether the public will be in favour of it or against it. We want to make sure synthetic biology is used for something that is clearly good for the environment.”