Impacts of synthetic biology on biodiversity


The issue

The precise definition of synthetic biology remains contested but in essence it is the use of engineering principles to design and build new biological parts, devices or systems. Synthetic biology is being used to address a longstanding set of problems in agriculture, human medicine and biomanufacturing. It also has potential uses for environmental and conservation challenges. As an unproven technology there remains disagreement on the advisability of seeking broader application that would involve unknown impacts of genomic technologies on the natural world.

As a rapidly emerging field, the issues surrounding synthetic biology are complex and controversial. The field is unknown to many people including within the conservation community. As a starting point, mapping and understanding the different values, knowledge and positions related to this field would greatly contribute to conservation playing an informed role in the debate.

The project

There are many people, organisations and sectors already engaging in synthetic biology including students and citizens, academia, industry and government, and policy arenas such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), with more than 1,300 member organisations, is a global authority on biodiversity. In response to a resolution adopted by members in 2016 IUCN has formed a task force and technical working group to look at the intersection of emerging synthetic biology technologies and their impact on biodiversity conservation. The Luc Hoffmann Institute has been asked to contribute expertise in convening and co-production to ensure that the policy is informed by different perspectives, values, scientific disciplines and other kinds of knowledge as well as allowing for a process that embraces transparency and collaboration.

The objectives

  • Maximise the range of expertise included in an initial workshop (which took place in April 2018), drawing from a diversity of places, disciplines and sectors.
  • Generate a robust research plan and outputs that will guide the development of a global policy position for IUCN and its constituents.
  • Ensure that the IUCN global policy process is adaptable in addressing the complexities of the issue to maximise the relevance and legitimacy of both the process and outputs.
  • Generate an assessment that encompasses technical and policy aspects to use by expert and non-expert audiences.

Support interdisciplinary research through methods drawn from co-production, science-policy interaction and analysis related to complex problems.

Expected outcomes

  • Increased awareness and discussion of the technical and social dimensions of synthetic biology and biodiversity among target communities.
  • Increased expertise in synthetic biology and biodiversity among participants and wider target audiences, through academic and non-academic outputs.
  • IUCN global policy mandate takes into account diverse kinds of evidence, integrates learning from other processes and demonstrates new approaches to dealing with complex issues 

For more information please contact:

Melanie Ryan, Senior Programme Manager, Luc Hoffmann Institute

Luc Hoffmann InstituteImpacts of synthetic biology on biodiversity