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Synthetic life and biodiversity

Written by Dr Chris Gyngell

Last year, the first truly novel synthetic life form was created. The Minimal Cell created by the Venter Lab, contains the smallest genome of any known independent organism.[1] While the first synthetic microbe was created in 2010, that was simply a like for like synthetic copy of the genome of an existing bacterium.  Nothing like the Minimal Cell exists in nature.

This great advance in synthetic biology comes at a time where natural life forms are being manipulated in ways never seen before.  The CRISPR gene editing system has been used to create hulk-like dogs, malaria proof mosquitoes, drought resistant wheat and hornless cows. The list of CRISPR-altered animals grows by the month.

Such developments hasten the need for a systematic analysis of the ethics of creating new forms of life. In a recent paper[2], Julian Savulescu and I draw attention to how thoughts regarding the value of biodiversity may bear on this question.

The idea that biodiversity is valuable is ubiquitous. The United Nations “Convention on Biodiversity”, signed by over 160 countries, recognises the “intrinsic value of biological diversity”.[3]  The idea that biodiversity is valuable has also greatly influenced the commercial sector and is a cornerstone of the modern corporate social responsibility movement. The value of biodiversity has even been recognised by the Catholic Church. Pope Francis devotes an entire section of his Encyclical Letter, “On Care For Our Common Home” to the Loss of Biodiversity, describing a new Sin, the destruction of biological diversity.[4]

Most discussions about biodiversity focus on its conservation or protection. Biodiversity is widely seen as a good that should be preserved. We take no stand on whether biodiversity is in fact valuable in this way. Rather we claim that if biodiversity is valuable, this suggests it would be good to increase it, rather than just conserve it at current levels. Just as biodiversity’s value provides reason to prevent species going extinct, it may also provide reasons to introduce novel species; created through synthetic biology or gene editing.

Our claim – that there is no asymmetry between the value of protecting biodiversity, and the value of promoting it (by adding novel species) could be resisted in at least three ways.

One, it could be claimed that our current levels of biodiversity are in some sense optimal. If current levels are optimal then we will have reasons to make sure we do not lose forms of biodiversity, but will not have reasons to create and introduce new life forms.  However, we have strong reasons to doubt the assumption that our current levels of biodiversity are optimal.

Humankind has already had a massive influence on global biodiversity. Recent studies[5] indicate that biodiversity has declined dramatically because of human activity.  Rates of species loss have been accelerated 100 fold in recent centuries. Because we are in a situation where biodiversity has reduced dramatically because of our acts, the claim that current levels are biodiversity are in some sense intrinsically optimal seems very convenient. It would imply that when humans first evolved there was too much biodiversity in the world.

Second, we could appeal to the fragility of nature in attempting to justify conserving, but not promoting biodiversity. A common view is that natural systems, such as ecosystems, are finely balanced and fragile. Because of this, creating new species, but not removing species, is likely to be damaging.

However, such a view of natural systems stems from a misguided view of the causal structure of the natural living world, especially with regard to the interrelations between species that comprise communities and ecosystems.

Whereas it was long-assumed that strategic interaction (e.g. between predator and prey) would lead to evolutionarily stable solutions, there is now a great deal of evidence that biotic interactions will tend to undermine, rather than reinforce, the stability of faunal associations. Hence our current ecosystems are rarely finely balanced, stable communities. Furthermore, research on both living and paleontological communities suggests the impact of a new species moving into an area, tend to be fairly weak in terms of their ecological impact, especially in the context of non-island invasions.

A final way we might resist the claim we have reasons to preserve biodiversity and therefore reason to promote it is an appeal to rights. If species have a right to continued existence, it would be prima facie wrong to contribute to their extinction. However, this wouldn’t imply a duty to create non-existent species.

But it is controversial whether species are the types of entities that could have rights.  While group rights are often proposed for nations, culture groups and so on, they are rarely proposed for species. Only particular groups are considered to have group rights, such as those which show intra-group solidarity, or unity and a sense of shared identity. It is not clear that animal species would meet these conditions. An account of species rights that plausibly defends the view that species have a continue right to existence has not been developed.

In sum, we believe the widely accepted view that biodiversity is a value implies we have reasons to promote biodiversity rather than just conserve it. If biodiversity is in fact valuable, we should be encouraged by recent developments in synthetic biology and genetic engineering which promise to transform life as we know it.







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5 Comment on this post

  1. You mention faunal associations, yet the only synthetic life on the horizon is microbial – the natural counterparts of which are not well understood ecologically. Could this lack of knowledge form another point against attempts at increasing biodiversity?

  2. Let’s imagine that we cause the extinction of half of the species of vertebrates, but we synthetically create just as many rather dissimilar “replacement” species. Assuming that extinction is irreversible, I think that one reason to not do this is that it permanently reduces our ability to viscerally understand our planet’s history. One important reason why it’s sad we’ve lost the mammoth is because we people used to hunt those things, and when we made them extinct, we’ve made it more difficult for all future generations to picture what nature was like. The replacement species we create will only further cloud the capacity to form a realistic image of how nature was.

    This argument applies to all kinds of “wilderness replacement” schemes, not just species. If we turned Yosemite into a rollercoaster theme park with golf courses, it would be irreversible. Future generations who want to see it as it used to be will lose that option. Sure, they’ll instead have other options that we now lack about the use of the land (just as the replacement species will have value), but if they are anything like us, they might want to value seeing nature how it used to be. It’s the irreversibility of replacement that’s at the core of this argument. Every such irreversible move to replace something natural takes the Earth one step closer to being a manufactured environment, and permanently removes options from future people to have it otherwise. It’s not that I think artificial things lack value, but that the originals have something extra that is worth valuing.

  3. One way of defending the value of biodiversity is that each species is a contingent result of a complex history. The loss of a species means losing something that cannot be replicated: were we to re-run history we would get different species, also with value, but lacking the uniqueness of the original species. So if we replace a species with a new one, something historical is lost (this is close to David’s point above). However, adding an extra species seems totally OK: it just adds some unique to the world.

    One could argue that made species are not as contingent and lack the complex history of natural species, but this assumes synthetic biology is simple and deterministic (which is its aspiration, but it is far from there) and that there is no room for creativity, serendipity, or complex human stories interwoven with the species story. The species would be like a garden: a mix of human planning and biological adaptation.

    Personally I think we should add a few more beetle species.

  4. The post notes that “The list of CRISPR-altered animals grows by the month.” It is entirely relevant to note that this costs money. Someone has to pay for it. And mostly it is business that is paying.

    Why do businesses pay for this? Because that think they will make money with the technology, perhaps not in the short term, but maybe in a decade. How will they make money? They will improve an existing production process, reducing costs, or provide a service that reduces costs for others, including health care costs. That almost inevitably means that they will substitute a new process for an existing process. They will substitute, for instance, a more disease-resistant cow with higher milk yields, for existing cows.

    History shows that changes in the production process involve substitution. Steam locomotives substituted for horse-drawn wagons. Steamships substituted for sailing ships. Unless there is a niche leisure or nostalgia market, the prior technology disappears. Nobody manufactures black-and-white cathode-ray televisions anymore.

    Equally, no commercial farmer is going to keep a herd of cows which are more vulnerable to disease and give less milk than other cows, just for the sake of diversity. No government is going to insist that malaria-carrying mosquitos are preserved, just for the sake of diversity. We are not talking about adding new species here, we are talking about replacement. In almost all cases, one-on-one replacement. One new species means one extinct, unless someone else spends money to preserve them.

    The only additional species we will see are vanity species, created entirely for their interest to human beings. That may sound futuristic, but it is in the tradition of dog and cat breeding, which may be thousands of years old. We might see blue cats as domestic pets, and we might see pink dinosaurs in amusement parks. But that too is entirely dependent on the market. If there is no consumer demand, then there will be no new species of this kind.

    So the discussion on ‘increased biodiversity’ seem misplaced, and given the commercial interests possibly deliberately misleading. It would not be the first time, that business has disguised profit-seeking as high moral principles. Authors who advocate ‘increased biodiversity’ through gene editing and related technologies, ought to start out by demonstrating that there will in fact be ‘increased biodiversity’ as a result of the technology they promote.

  5. Thanks for the responses everyone.

    KR – I agree we should think carefully about the ecological interactions of any species we introduce, and perhaps we have a lot more to learn about bacterial interactions before we start introducing novel bacteria. Still, I think in the future this is one area which might be productively explored. Diversity in microorganisms helps improve soil productivity and plant health. Increasing microbial diversity – through artificial and/or natural means, could improve global food production, and reduce famine and suffering.

    David and Anders – I generally agree with both of you. It may be the case that natural species with long evolutionary histories and interactions with homo sapiens have value above and beyond synthetic species. But, as you both say, even if there is a premium on the natural, synthetic species seem likely to still have some value. In some cases adding novel species will be justified – and we certainly need many more beetle species Anders 😉

    Paul – I agree that if commercial interests use such technologies to reduce diversity, that will be very bad.

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