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CSR: Potential Positive Applications of Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology

Science and technology have made leaps of progress in the field of biotechnology. The power of technology is such, that scientists can modify microorganisms like E. coli by rewriting their genetic code to turn them into tiny living factories that produce biofuel. This is an example of products made possible by the advanced genetic-engineering technology known as synthetic biology, a term for which no internationally accepted definition exists.

Applications of synthetic biology are advancing beyond the manipulation of microbes to make desired substances. Strategies to release genetically engineered organisms into the environment to permanently alter entire populations of target species have been proposed as a means to control pollution, eradicate vectors of diseases, eliminate invasive species, and lend resilience to threatened plants and animals.

A possible game-changer with important potential benefits and risks, synthetic biology has been identified by international experts as an emerging issue of environmental concern with global implications and features as one of five topics in UN Environment’s recently published Frontiers Report.

Applications of synthetic biology

Many commercially available synthetic biology products have been developed to provide alternatives to existing high-value commodities, especially those dependent on the petroleum supply chain and non-renewable resources. Synthetic alternatives and replacements for substances conventionally derived from nature are also gaining ground in research and market spaces.

Synthetic biology has also opened up a new landscape for advanced materials with novel functionalities and performance, such as materials that can self-assemble or self-repair. The recent emergence of CRISPR (pronounced crisper and short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) as a gene-editing tool has enabled even more precise and inexpensive methods of engineering individual organisms, biological systems, and entire genomes.

Synthetic biology could indirectly benefit conservation efforts by allowing the development of artificial alternatives to commercial products normally sourced from the wild. For example, the blood of the horseshoe crab is a major biomedical commodity used to test pharmaceuticals for bacterial contamination. Unsustainable harvesting is pushing the species towards global extinction. A synthetic substitute has been developed that could reduce or replace the need to harvest the endangered crabs. Likewise, engineered microbes and microalgae capable of producing alternatives to omega-3 oils could lessen pressure on declining wild fish stocks.

However, with great power, comes great responsibility. The negative applications of technology by extremists can create a lot more damage than anticipated. Responsible utilisation of technology is required to ensure that the technological monster we are feeding, does not become bigger than mankind.

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The CSR Journal Team