Can we ‘preserve’ by looking forwards? The sixth great extinction event in the history of biology is underway, and we humans may be its cause. While conservationists struggle to protect existing ‘natural’ species and reverse the effects of the Anthropocene (the human epoch), synthetic biologists are busy designing new organisms for the ‘benefit of humanity’. What might the ‘wilds’ look like in a synthetic biological future?
Designing for the Sixth Extinction investigates synthetic biology’s potential impact on biodiversity and conservation. Could we tolerate ‘rewilding’ — the conservation movement that lets nature take control — using synthetic biology to make nature ‘better’? Letting synthetic biodiversity loose to save the ‘nature’ that we idealise would disrupt existing conventions.
In this future, novel companion species designed by synthetic biologists support endangered natural species and ecosystems. Financed by corporate ‘biodiversity offset’ schemes, patented species released into the wild compensate for biodiversity lost elsewhere due to widespread monoculture farming of biomass for biofuel and chemical production. In the bioeconomy, the preservation of natural biodiversity is worthwhile not just for sentimental reasons, it is also a valuable DNA library for future biological designs.
Modelled on fungus, bacteria, invertebrates and mammals, the designed and functional species are ecological props that fill the void left by vanished animals, or offer novel protection against foreign species, diseases and pollution. Constructed using an expanded DNA code that produces nonbiodegradable proteins, these living machines are hardy in the face of wild predators that have not yet evolved to digest them. They form their own enclosed ecosystems, the outcome of decades of political negotiation around biosafety and release. Corporately-designed organisms used to preserve or revive disappearing ecosystems would demand a relaxed attitude to biological control, risk and ownership. The taxonomic status of organisms that are technologically isolated with no purpose except to save others is also uncertain. Are they even ‘alive’? If nature is totally industrialised for the benefit of society — which for some is the logical endpoint of synthetic biology — will nature still exist for us to save?
Designing for the Sixth Extinction investigates an area that has not yet had much scrutiny: the relationship between conservation, biodiversity and synthetic biology. In October 2013, for the first time, an advisory committee of the Convention on Biological Diversity (the agreement signed by 150 countries in Rio in 1992) is discussing synbio, as environmental NGOs call for a moratorium on the technology. Designing for the Sixth Extinction reflects on a future total instrumentalisation of nature by synthetic biology. Could we see existing biodiversity simply as a useful resource for spare parts? The despair found in conservation contrasts with the world-saving optimism found in synthetic biology. The project is also an aesthetic exploration of this technology. What might synthetic biology look like and how would it be managed if it were let loose in the complex context of the ‘wilds’ rather than controlled in industrial vats? Is this still nature if it runs on a ‘safer’ expanded DNA code, and doesn’t fully interact with the ecosystem?