As the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) ponders guidelines for considering new and emerging issues that may have implications for biodiversity – and struggles to adopt a protocol on access and benefit sharing (ABS) – researchers in synthetic biology are developing the capacity to construct synthetic life forms. The repercussions for biological diversity are unknown but could be devastating. Natural organisms, too, may be “tweaked” using synthetic biology to allow for patent monopolies beyond the reach of state sovereignty or of indigenous peoples.
Several decades after the development of recombinant DNA techniques, a new set of genetic technologies is once again changing the way industry manipulates life. Synthetic biology applies digital and engineering approaches to building life forms from scratch using synthetic DNA and other human-made parts. With the genomes of nearly 4000 organisms already sequenced and stored in various databases, synthetic biologists have a lot of raw material to work with.
The CBD has just begun to grapple with the implications of synthetic life forms and is the first multilateral forum to do so. Newly manufactured synthetic organisms raise new risks that are not explicitly covered by existing regulations on genetic engineering. The proposed use of synthetic microbes in the production of the next generation of fuels, medicines and industrial chemicals may massively increase human impact on biodiversity, while accelerating biopiracy and making a mockery of any notion of “benefit sharing.” Delegates meeting at COP 10 in Nagoya have the opportunity to address these new challenges to biological diversity.