Synthetic Biology: Applications and Ethics

Written by on April 17, 2013 in Technology

Could synthetic biology help make endangered sea turtles stronger? Could it be used to develop heat-resistant coral? Could it bring back over-exploited fish stocks? The answer is yes, it probably could – but does that mean we should?

Image showing the structure of DNA.

Image showing the structure of DNA. Photo credit: Zephyris at en.Wikipedia.

Synthetic biology is a form of genetic engineering that involves not just manipulating genes, but creating new ones. And by ‘creating’ I mean thinking up a new sequence of DNA, typing it into a computer, printing it out, and using it with living organisms. Check out this video to learn more about the process. It has the potential to be applied on a molecular level, like engineering bacteria to treat cancer, or even on a species level, like re-introducing the extinct passenger pigeon.

Synthetic biology could be a blessing, allowing scientists to solve human health problems, improve food security, advance renewable energy and even combat climate change. But, it could also be a curse, resulting in genetically modified super-species that could threaten natural ecosystems. The limits of synthetic biology and its possible application in conservation biology has rarely been discussed before.

An essay recently published in PLOS Biology focuses on just that – exploring the science and ethics of synthetic biology. The essay, Synthetic Biology and Conservation of Nature: Wicked Problems and Wicked Solutions, served as the framework for a conference held last week (April 9-11) at Clare College in Cambridge, England.

The Synthetic Biology and Conservation Conference aimed to bring together experts from synthetic biology and conservation who, before now, have had very little in common. It focused on both scientific and ethical issues of synthetic biology and its potential application in conservation while attempting to answer the question: How will synthetic biology and conservation shape the future of nature? The conference probably sparked more questions than it answered, but then again it is only the beginning of a promising area of research.

So what does this have to do with marine science? I asked essay co-author Kent Redford of Archipelago Consulting just that.

While most efforts, particularly those aimed at re-creating extinct species, are focused on land animals like the passenger pigeon and the wooly mammoth, Redford explained in an email to MST that he sees “no reason that the approach could not be applied to marine species as well as to terrestrial ones. I would imagine that terrestrial species might be worked on first to get the techniques worked out.”

Reef in American Samoa.

Reef in American Samoa. Photo credit: NOAA/NMFS/PIFSC/CRED, Oceanography Team.

He mentioned that some researchers are also interested in applying synthetic biology to marine fish and invertebrates. For example, Redford said “work being done by Steve Palumbi about finding naturally occurring corals with tolerance to hotter temperatures” was discussed at the conference.

We’ve written about Steve Palumbi’s work before. Palumbi and colleagues studied shallow-reef corals to determine how they handle warmer-than-normal temperatures on a regular basis. With the help of synthetic biology, the potential may exist to create corals that could withstand warming waters, allowing us to possibly prevent future bleaching events.

The possibilities seem to be endless. What do you think? Should we continue exploring the conservation side of synthetic biology or is it a dangerous area of research?

To learn more, check out some of these articles:

Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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