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Synthetic Biology for Global Conservation?

This is a report compiled by the world’s experts on conservation and ecology, aiming to provide a politically neutral and balanced view of global conservation challenges and the ways genetic information and/or technologies could be used to solve them. They note that this is field in flux, since simultaneously technologies are changing (for example, genetic technologies are becoming more precise), social views are changing (particularly the views of younger generations) and nature is changing too.

Case studies range from avian malaria, to tree disease, to rodents on islands. This last is particularly interesting for Aotearoa New Zealand, helping me remember that we are not the only island nation struggling with declining native bio-diversity. Islands are home to 37% of critically engaged species even though islands make up 5.3% of the earth’s land area. Sixty one percent of extinctions since 1500 have occurred on islands, with introduced species remaining as a key threat. (p. 67) I’m sorry to tell you that feral cats are considered responsible for at least 14% of extinctions of birds, mammals and reptiles (p.68) worldwide.

Image by Joseph Johnson/Stuff

A very important part of this report are considerations of how to govern synthetic biology and genetic technologies for conservation and whose voices should count. Important too is the precautionary principle – in essence a stance that says when likely damage is great, less scientific certainty may be required, early protective measures should be prioritised and costs and benefits be repeatedly weighed up (pp. 20-21).

This is particularly tricky when so much remains uncertain, and when learning more about how genetic tools might help complex eco-systems might require accepting some risk. They suggest that, at times, we might have to make choices about the release of genetically modified organisms into the natural environment so that we can better understand the multiple flow on effects (p.54).

What is clear is that conservation requires that we at least grapple with synthetic biology in general, and genetic technologies in particular, and that this grappling is not just with science but with values, with risk, with trade-offs, and by listening to all voices.

We’d love you to be one of those voices. Let us know what you think in a comment.

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