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The Use of Synthetic Biology to Help Conservation Efforts
Since the first synthetic organism was announced, controversy over the man-made creation of organisms from chemicals has been met with great debate. From a simple beginning of a cell containing chemically synthesized DNA, scientists have proposed many more adventurous projects, including the production of extinct or endangered animals. Concerns regarding the potential uses of synthetic biology are brought up regularly. The reintroduction of dangerous pathogens, such as the 1918 flu virus responsible for a pandemic that killed millions, is one major concern. In addition, moral and ethical considerations about “playing God” by creating new organisms, or even reviving extinct organisms, have been raised. Indeed, we must question what right we have to create living things to suit our needs?

With ecological research showing rapid destruction of ecosystems, and many species being endangered or killed off, conservation has become an important focal point for environmental scientists. The possibility of using synthetic biology has already been proposed to revive extinct species, with some going so far as to suggest the resurrection of species such as wooly mammoths. Bringing any animal or plant back from extinction, or the brink of extinction, has the potential to be problematic. There are concerns about how the species would survive in its new environment, and what type of effect it would have on the environment and other native species.

A long-extinct species like the mammoth would probably not be adapted to live in the current environment on earth. It would not be adapted for the climate, available food sources, predators, and even man-made factors such as pollution. Even if the species was able to survive and thrive once re-introduced into the wild, it might act as an invasive species. This means that the species could harm the environment, by depleting food supplies for other animals or preventing other native plant species from growing properly. Once an invasive species has become established in an ecosystem, it can be very difficult to remove. Endangered and more recently extinct species may not thrive either, even with assistance from synthetic biology. One large problem such species might face would be limited gene pools. This would prevent further adaptations to environmental changes. It could also result in defective recessive alleles becoming over-represented in the population, thereby propagating genetic diseases in these populations. In addition, cloning of many species has been problematic, resulting in individuals being born with severe defects, if they survive through the embryonic stage. More complex animals in particular have higher chances of experiencing these defects. If scientists were able to use synthetic biology to help breed endangered species, the individuals produced may not be viable.

A more likely scenario would be using synthetic biology to preserve species on the brink of extinction, including plants and animals. Synthetic biology could also be used to help improve the health and survivability of these endangered species. Species could be genetically engineered to express specific genes that allow them to survive and reproduce in their environment more efficiently. Synthetic biology is already successfully used in ecology, although in a more mundane manner. For example, a plant hormone called auxin is involved in helping plants develop strong roots. Scientists are able to easily produce the hormone in bacteria, and have used it to help maintain the growth of grasses in areas that are experiencing droughts.

Synthetic biology in general is a very contentious area of science, and raises a great deal of ethical concerns. These concerns are also seen in the altruistic extension of synthetic biology to conservation biology. One of the first concerns involves introducing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment. GMOs are a generally deemed worrisome by many ecologists, as the environmental and health impacts are not yet fully understood. Scientists worry that GMOs may cross-breed with native plants, thus spreading pesticide-resistance genes into weeds that could harm the environment. In addition, the long term use and consumption of GMOs by humans and other animals may have unknown consequences. As it stands, a great majority (up to 95%) of corn, soy, and cotton grown in the United States are GMO. Adding more species of plants and animals to the list of GMOs could cause additional unforeseen problems to the environment, as well as to human health.

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The Use of Synthetic Biology to Help Conservation Efforts - by bridgettpayseur - 04-13-2013, 03:30 AM

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