Gentlemen, We Can Rebuild It: a Potential Application of Synthetic Biology in Biodiversity Conservation

A few months ago, National Geographic hosted a TEDx De-Extinction meeting in Washington, D.C. What followed the meeting was a flurry of op-eds, thought pieces, and opines on the merits and risks of species de-extinction. Although exciting in its own right (or terrifying, depending on where you stand), I felt that the most interesting part of the de-extinction conversation was the question it raised about its impact on conservation. More specifically, whether it would benefit or detract from current efforts to conserve extant species worldwide.

From that has risen (or, I hope, will rise now) the question of whether the broader field of synthetic biology has any benefits to offer to biodiversity conservation worldwide. Synthetic biology, the creation of new biological forms by man’s hand, is really nothing new; just a further extension of our historic tinkering with crop lines and domestication. For thousands of years, we have cross-bred and culled the plants and animals around us to make them a little bit hardier; a little bit faster; a little bit more useful. Our techniques have improved slowly over time, helped along immensely by the launch of the field of genetics, and now again by the potential to “edit” existing species to make them better suited to our modern world.

All well and good for drought-resistant corn, but we’re talking about conservation, are we not?

The implications for conservation are even more powerful and even more valuable. Imagine the beautiful predators of the African savanna, hunted to near extinction for the inexcusable crime of snagging the odd goat or two. Imagine the delicate frogs hopping desperately about on an isolated island, dried out by climate change. Imagine an endemic hardwood tree with beautiful red blossoms, too slow-growing to replenish itself against logging.

Gentlemen, we can rebuild them. Better than they were before. Or, at least, better suited to live with us.

Figure 1- Subadult lions gathered in a group of 15 just outside Kichwa Tembo Lodge in Narok County, Kenya.
Figure 1– Subadult lions gathered in a group of 15 just outside Kichwa Tembo Lodge in Narok County, Kenya.

Let’s take a closer look at an example, and because of my personal affinity, let’s have a look at an African predator: the lion. Lions, for the unfamiliar, are apex predators, intelligent social mammals, and majestic icons of the African wilderness. They are playful, clever, and fascinating to watch; they engage the imaginations of people the world over. They are also devilish cow-snatchers and potential man-eaters, two facts that make them reliably unpopular with their neighbors.

For lions, these two predilections cause such conflict with the human communities throughout their range that they have led to widespread, devastating lethal action against them. At present, such lethal action – the indiscriminate killing of lions in retaliation for livestock or human attacks — is the primary driver of lion population loss across Africa.

Figure 2- Map of Current & Historic Lion Ranges.  Source: Panthera
Figure 2– Map of Current & Historic Lion Ranges. Source: Panthera

Conservationists have labored for decades to solve this problem. Creating community-run wildlife conservancies helps; compensation payments help (temporarily); education and outreach help; wildlife tourism profits help. But nothing really solves the problem — only ex post facto mitigates it.

Synthetic biology might offer a solution that lets us get out ahead of the problem. What if, for example, we could make a small genomic tweak here and there that gave a lion a deep and irrepressible (and hereditary!) revulsion to cattle? Would we not have removed completely the primary driver of the conflict that threatens the future of the lion in Africa? Would we not have given conservationists the upper hand in stopping illegal killing and poaching by removing any justification? Would we not have eliminated a significant threat to the lives and economic well-being of people living the margins, whose lives are difficult enough? Would we not now have a predator that was much better-suited to life in a human-dominated landscape? Would we not have solved the problem? Would we not have built a better lion?

I’m not the first person to wonder about the value of synthetic biology for conservation, not by a long shot (see here, here, here, here, and here). But I wonder how widespread the conversation is. Synthetic biology meeting conservation is, to borrow the IUCN’s language, an imminent encounter; a foregone conclusion; an answered question. But it’s up to us to embrace the potential.

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