Climate change. Loss of biodiversity in both land and the oceans. Inequality and poverty. There are many global challenges that humankind must face in order to bring peace and welfare to everyone. With this in mind, the United Nations adopted in 2015 the Agenda for Sustainable Development, a global blueprint towards a better life for the Earth’s population through seventeen Sustainable Development Goals.
But, in practice, getting down to business can be a juggling act. Increasing the quality of life of developing societies implies in many cases granting access to commodities and better jobs. But to fulfil these demands, industries would have to produce more, and this would have an ecological impact, worsening the current environmental scenario. Fighting these global challenges is thus a very delicate balance.
At the end, a real improvement would need to change how things are done. In order to make this planet a better place to live in, economy, ecology and social rights must get along. And in this changing landscape, synthetic biology can become a major ally.
This discipline has the ability of engineering microorganisms to provide them with skills that they didn’t have before. Using this technology, researchers can turn these tiny beings into living factories that produce valuable products or degrade dangerous pollutants. Once optimised, biotechnological production can become a cheaper and greener alternative to the classical means of production: microbes need less energy and space to work, many of them can feed on organic matter -and even on waste- and the by-products they produce are often biodegradable.
A great example for this is related to one of the most concerning challenges of our time: climate change. Industrial activity is partly behind the CO2 emissions that are contributing to global warming. Using bacteria to produce goods that are typically obtained using classic polluting techniques could help dropping the amount of greenhouse gases emitted. This game-changing application of synthetic biology is already happening. For instance, the production of vitamin B2 with the bacteria Ashbya gossypii has reduced the CO2 emission by 30%, as compared to the chemical synthesis. Microorganisms can also be decisive in ensuring clean water sources, a problem that is related to many sustainability goals. Industrial wastewater is often contaminated with a wide range of toxic compounds such as radioactive particles or heavy metals that impose a hazard for the environment. There are already engineered strains of Bacillus subtilis that can degrade acetonitrile, a common and dangerous wastewater pollutant.
Building tailor-made organisms could be the answer, but it takes many years of research and large money investment. And this is because constructing the most suitable bacterial strain can become a real headache. Fortunately, the scientific community has made a great progress enhancing genome engineering techniques, such as the low-cost DNA synthesis, making the process much easier.
These techniques open the door to novel approaches to develop customised microbes. Some of them considers a bottom-down design, like engineering microorganisms with computer-designed and chemically synthetized genetic information. Others set out a simplifying approach, such as reducing the microbe’s genome in order to eliminate genes that are not essential and make space for new information related with the task they will perform. Both strategies pursue the same goal: to obtain a tailor-made microorganism that can solve a specific challenge.
All things considered, we have access to all the required molecular tools to engineer virtually any skill in any microbe, and even to build up entire synthetic organisms. The only limit to the potential contribution of synthetic biology to the sustainable development goals is imagination! If you want to know more about how synthetic biology can contribute to a sustainable development or about the different approaches to construct tailor-made bacteria, read our review on the matter!