Synthetic biologists and conservationists open talks- Nature News

I ran across this while doing some other work…
Here’s the link and below is an excerpt.

Sounds like a bonanza of “EIS’s we’d rather not review”! I remember some folks wanted to genetically engineer wood fungi so they would break down logs faster in the woods and reduce fuel loads quicker..I wonder if that ever got funded..

Soil saver

As an example of what the field can offer conservation, Kitney cites an undergraduate project he supervised that was presented at the 2011 International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, a kind of synthetic-biology science fair. Christopher Schoene, now at the University of Oxford, UK, and his team engineered Escherichia coli so that the bacterium would migrate into plant roots and produce the growth hormone auxin. In greenhouse tests, roots of cress plants that contained the engineered bacterium grew longer than those without, and the soil retained more water. Such a bacterium might help to combat desertification — the degradation of fertile land into desert when soil nutrients are lost.

But synthetic biology worries some observers, who fear what might happen if genes or organisms escape from their intended niches. Paul Falkowski, a geomicrobiologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, sees value in microbes that can turn carbon dioxide into fuel or make fertilizers from atmospheric nitrogen, but he worries that industrial-scale production could have drastic consequences, such as the inadvertent production of greenhouse gases.“I am rather amazed at the naivety of synthetic biologists at the way the world works,”he says.

Many attendees also expressed nervousness about the potential of synthetic biology to influence land-use patterns. Microbes that reduce greenhouse-gas levels might lessen the pressure on governments to maintain rainforests, they said. Technologies that make marginal lands more productive could turn undeveloped land into single-crop farms.

Such shifts are already beginning to occur. A project begun by Jay Keasling, a synthetic biologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, coaxed yeast to produce the antimalarial drug artemesinin at industrial levels (see Nature 494, 160–161; 2013). Much of the drug currently comes from cultivation of sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), but Keasling believes that synthetic sources will eventually force A. annua growers in China and elsewhere to cultivate other crops. “I don’t make the decision about what gets produced,” says Keasling, whose company, Amyris in Emeryville, California, aims to produce industrial products with engineered microbes. “The marketplace decides. What I do is provide more options.”

Concerns could be mitigated by designing ways to limit the spread of synthetic microbes. Schoene’s team, for example, added a genetic safeguard to its E. coli that stops other microbes from acquiring the auxin-producing gene. “If [safeguards] are being developed with as much creativity as other technologies, that would reassure me a lot,” says Stephen Palumbi, a marine biologist at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California.

Bill Sutherland, a conservation biologist at the University of Cambridge, agrees that his colleagues need to take synthetic biology seriously. But he says that a small poll he took at the meeting shows that the gulf between the two disciplines is not so wide. Both agree that more-efficient use of natural resources could be an important boon from synthetic biology. Both worry about the potential for synthetic organisms to harm natural ecosystems.

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