A group of conservationists was meeting in Bellagio in december 2015 to discuss how IUCN should deal with the upcoming development of genomic technologies. Brains were cooking for three days and we discussed if and how Synthetic Biology can contribute to the conservation of biodiversity.
There are a number of key causes which we know strongly affect species, such as habitat fragmentation, diseases, invasive species, or overhunting. Can we find possible solutions using new technologies? And should we apply synthetic biology, that means modifying the genetic code of organisms to overcome some of this urgent and most pressing matters in conservation ? While in the field of Synthetic Biology the number of projects are exploding, due to rapid technological advancements (such as gene drive), most conservationist are still very hesitant to modify organisms and keep an attitude in protecting everything as it is.
However, there are a number of examples we coul start thinking about:
- What happens if we have a substitute to natural palm oil? Can we protect primary rain forest and prevent them to be turned into palm plantations?
- What happens if we can eradicate invasive species (such as many small rodents) on islands by making them infertile?
- What happens if we can get rid of some of the most worrying diseases to wildlife, by tackling vectors or pathogens?
- What happens if we grow rhino horn artifically?
Many of those things are feasible from a technological point and many more will be in the course of the coming years. None of these offer simple solutions and and easy answers, and we not only have to deal with conservation concerns, but with economic, ethic and social issues as well. Our world is changing with a speed unknown in history and it is up to us how we position ourselves and engage in steering the process or if we want to be left behind by facts.