A dogma of sustainability in Synthetic Biology?

3 minute read


This is a somewhat self-indulgent blog post for someone about to start a PhD investigating the sustainability implications of Synthetic Biology applications, but for my first blog post, I thought I’d pick some low hanging fruit. I’m using these blog posts as a sounding board as I navigate the world of research. If you disagree with something, or if something I say irks you, or if you have something to add, please get in contact.

Anyone who’s read literature relating to Synthetic Biology will regularly come across phrases like “more sustainable production” attached to descriptions of possible Synthetic Biology technologies. In the 2016 Synthetic Biology strategic plan for the UK, “Biodesign for the Bioeconomy”, sustainability is repeatedly touted as a key advantage of SynBio based methods. Repeat after me, “Synthetic Biology is a route to a sustainable future”, or so the dogma goes.

It is notable that the move away from fossil fuels is often mentioned. This focuses the mind on reduced CO2 emissions, sustainable resource use and less hazardous air pollutants. All of these factors relate to environmental sustainability. Indeed, from this perspective, the dogma is not without justification. It makes logical sense that products produced by algae, yeast or plants, at ambient temperatures, without the need for numerous separate stages and with renewable inputs, will be more sustainable than the alternatives. The alternatives often being complicated and intensive chemical synthesis protocols or inefficient agricultural based production.

But sustainability covers far more than just the environment. Synthetic Biology is at present being pursued by large and generally highly developed countries, most nations just don’t have the research infrastructure to support such innovation. A possible consequence of this, particularly with an increased focus on speciality chemicals, is that products previously produced using traditional but intensive agricultural methods in developing nations could be replaced by Synthetic Biology based production in a small number of already very wealthy nations, undermining jobs and livelihoods. This is almost undoubtedly a negative for global economic sustainability and could contribute to global inequality.

Meanwhile, a socially sustainable innovation should be inclusive and democratic. It should give people a tangible say in the progression of the innovation cycle. There is at present an admirable focus on engagement with wider stakeholders and the general public in the field of Synthetic Biology in an attempt to try to try and avoid the ‘problems’ of public opposition in the development of GMOs. However, there is a danger of falling into the pitfall of trying to ‘educate away’ opposition to Synthetic Biology. Proper engagement should consult with these publics. In order to properly consult with someone, you must be open to the possibility of not pursuing a pathway of development based on their input, even if this contradicts your assumptions about its benefits and sustainability. Therefore, it is possible that the way publics are being included in the development of Synthetic Biology is not in a socially sustainable way.

Don’t get me wrong, I passionately believe that Synthetic Biology will help to solve and combat the major sustainability challenges of the near future, in particular reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, I think that when a broader set of sustainability issues are considered the sustainability benefits can become less clear. In order to innovate in a responsible way, we must appreciate the complex nature of sustainability and certainly not take it as a given that all Synthetic Biology innovations will provide net sustainability benefits. We must be open to the fact that while scientifically interesting and exciting, some Synthetic Biology innovations may not be worth pursuing on sustainability grounds, even if they reduce CO2 emissions. In short, the sustainability of Synthetic Biology must be an open and academically rigorous discussion.