Large numbers of species on the brink of extinction, rising global temperatures, air, water and soil pollution – these and other events are causing an unprecedented environmental crisis that the world is facing nowadays. At first sight, the forecast is unfavourable, and scientific studies point to human activities as the main cause for this shady future. However, we still have time to turn our human footprint into something positive, and synthetic biology can be a powerful ally in this important task. Let’s take a glance at a few examples of how this unique discipline can help us turn the planet greener!
Dealing with pollution
The World Health Organization reported that an estimated 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment in 2012. Behind these terrible figures are air, water and soil pollution which stand as the factors with the most impact -, so there is an urgent need for effective remediation strategies to solve this problem. Thanks to synthetic biology, scientists are able to engineer bacteria capable of recognizing a particular toxic compound and produce a detectable response. These synthetic organisms can thus locate and identify pollutants. Bacteria can also be modified for producing certain proteins that degrade contaminants, such as plastics, heavy metals and toxic chemicals. What’s more! – microorganisms can be modified to convert these compounds into materials with further applications in different fields. For example, researchers are designing bacteria that convert heavy metals into nanoparticles that can be used in medicine!
Despite the effort of scientists and conservationists, biodiversity loss is still a threat to overcome, and synthetic biology has emerged as a new approach for preserving species at the danger of extinction. This discipline can be applied to enhance genetic diversity within a species, build resistance to lethal diseases, facilitate adaptation to the environment, and even bring back extinct species. Yes, you read it right! The Passenger Pigeon Project is a good example – scientists have compared the genomes of the extinct passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and of another existing pigeon species. Then, they have identified which genetic regions need to be edited in the existing species with a view to obtaining a new generation of passenger pigeons that can be reintroduced to the wild!
But there are other projects that have become a reality already! In 1876, a fungus carried on imported chestnut seeds devastated the population of American chestnuts trees in the U.S.A. More than 100 years later, scientists have inserted a wheat gene into chestnut embryos, enabling them to neutralise the fungus toxin and making them resistant to the plague. Perhaps, in the close future, we will be able to obtain flora that can stand any disease, thanks to synbio!
Creating greener products
Experts estimate that the worldwide demand for energy will escalate by more than 50 % by the year 2030. Currently, non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels are fulfilling this demand, but these sources are limited and harmful to the environment. Biofuels obtained from natural lipids such as vegetable oils or animal fats offer a unique alternative to fossil fuels. However, biofuel production brings some associated disadvantages: they require high energy consumption and intensive use of cultivable land, while the entire process releases harmful gas emissions. To overcome these issues, synthetic biology is paving the way for obtaining biofuels from engineered microorganisms. Microalgae are a good alternative to other sources: as they contain high amounts of carbohydrate and lipids, grow rapidly, and they easily resist changing environmental conditions. That’s why synbio researchers are altering the microalgae metabolism to enhance their capacity to produce biofuel.
Viable and sustainable alternatives to plastics is also an urgent need. The increasing production of this material and its slow degradation threaten to pollute almost every corner of the planet. This situation is particularly devastating for seas and oceans, which receive up to 12 million tons of plastic waste every year. These plastics damage the health of aquatic ecosystems. However, the oceans themselves have provided us with a potential solution to the problem. The company Newlight Technologies has discovered an oceanic microorganism that can use greenhouse emissions such as methane and carbon dioxide to produce large amounts of an energetic material called “aircarbon”. Aircarbon can be melted and forged into fibers and solid parts, and therefore, can replace plastic in furniture and packaging while reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the air – two birds with one stone!
Last but not least, synthetic biology applications in agriculture may provide solutions to one of the greatest challenges of our times – feeding the increasing world population. Engineered microorganisms can exert beneficial effects on plants by enhancing crop nutrition and by reducing damages caused by pathogens, pests, frost and drought. Joyn Bio company is exploring this potential by designing a microbe that enables cereal crops to convert nitrogen from the air into a form they can use as a nutrient. This will reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers that pollute waterways and are responsible for 3 % of worldwide greenhouse emissions!
Although these are just a few examples of how synthetic biology can address the current environmental issues, it can help us in almost any task that comes to our minds. The potential benefits from Synthetic biology for the planet are endless and we need to explore its tools to help transform our earth towards sustainability.