Can we ‘preserve’ by looking forward? The sixth great extinction event in the history of biology is underway, and we humans may be its cause.
While conservationists struggle to protect existing ‘natural’ species and reverse the effects of the Anthropocene (the human epoch), synthetic biologists are busy designing new organisms for the ‘benefit of humanity’. What might the ‘wilds’ look like in a synthetic biological future?
Designing for the Sixth Extinction investigates synthetic biology’s potential impact on biodiversity and conservation. Could we tolerate ‘rewilding’ — the conservation movement that lets nature take control — using synthetic biology to make nature ‘better’? Letting synthetic biodiversity loose to save the ‘nature’ that we idealise would disrupt existing conventions of preservation.
In this version of the future, novel companion species designed by synthetic biologists support endangered natural species and ecosystems. Financed by corporate biodiversity offset schemes, patented species are released into the wild. They compensate for biodiversity lost due to widespread monoculture farming of biomass for biofuel and chemical production. For a thriving bioeconomy, the preservation of natural biodiversity is worthwhile not just for sentimental reasons, it is also a valuable DNA library for future biological designs.
Modeled on fungus, bacteria, invertebrates and mammals, the designed species are ecological machines that fill the void left by vanished organisms, or offer novel protection against more harmful invasive species, diseases and pollution.
Constructed using an expanded DNA code that produces non-biodegradable proteins, the synthetic biodiversity is hardy in the face of wild predators that have not yet evolved to eat and digest them. They operate in enclosed ecosystems, the outcome of decades of political negotiation and compromise around biosafety and release.
Designed organisms used to maintain or revive disappearing ecosystems would demand a relaxed attitude to biological control, risk and ownership. The taxonomic status of organisms that are technologically isolated with no purpose except to save others is also uncertain. Are they even ‘alive’? If nature is totally industrialized for the benefit of society—which for some is the logical endpoint of synthetic biology — will nature still exist for us to save?