Synthetic biologists vs. conservationists

The unintended consequences of tinkering with nature
April 18, 2013

A gastric-brooding frog, Rheobatrachus silus, gives oral birth in the lab of Mike Tyler of the University of Adelaide (credit: Mike Tyler/University of Adelaide)

At a first-of-its-kind meeting, held on April 9–11 at the University of Cambridge, leading conservationists and synthetic biologists discussed how synthetic biology could be used to benefit the planet, Nature News reports.

Example might include producing heat-tolerant coral reefs, pollution-sensing soil microbes, ruminant gut microbes that don’t belch methane, and helping frogs to overcome chytridiomycosis, the fungal disease threatening amphibians worldwide that is thought to have contributed to the extinction of R. silus.

For example, Escherichia coli has been modified so that the cacterium would migrate into plant roots and produce the growth hormone auxin. In greenhouse tests, roots of cress plants that contained the engineered bacterium grew longer than those without, and the soil retained more water. Such a bacterium might help to combat desertification — the degradation of fertile land into desert when soil nutrients are lost.

But conservationists worry that industrial-scale production could have drastic consequences, such as the inadvertent production of greenhouse gases or turn undeveloped land into single-crop farms.