Synthetic Biology and Conservation

By Claire Asher, on 7 July 2014

Synthetic biology, a hybrid between Engineering and Biology, is an emerging field of research promising to change the way we think about manufacturing, medicine, food production, and even conservation and sustainability. Oryx front cover
A review paper released this month in Oryx, authored by Dr Kent Redford, Professor William Adams, Dr Rob Carlson, Bertina Ceccarelli and CBER’s Professor Georgina Mace, discusses the possibilities and consequences of synthetic biology for biodiversity conservation. Synthetic biology aims to engineer the natural world to generate novel parts and systems that can be used to tackle real world problems such as genetic disease, food security, invasive species and climate change. It’s implications are far reaching, and although research in synthetic biology began decades ago, conservation biologists have only recently begun to take notice and appreciate it’s relevance to the conservation of biological diversity. A conference organised by the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2013 discussed the relationship between synthetic biology and conservation, and included speakers from both fields.

Finding Common Ground
It might be surprising to find that, despite a similar background in biological research, the shared knowledge and language of conservationists and synthetic biologists is relatively limited. Further, many synthetic biologists come from an engineering background, with little training in ecology. This can make communication between scientists in these fields more difficult, and may have slowed the pace at which synthetic biology has interfaced with conservation science. The two disciplines also employ different methods and think about nature in different ways. Synthetic biology is largely conducted within large, highly controlled laboratory conditions, whilst ecologists work on complex, interrelated natural systems with a major social and political component. Conservationists, working in a high-stakes field and learning from past mistakes, tend to be quite risk-averse in their practice of conservation, whilst synthetic biologists, working in a new science with much to gain from experimentation, tend to be more in favour of taking large risks. They may also have different outlooks on the future of biodiversity – conservations tend to be more pessimistic about the future, mourning past biodiversity loss, whilst synthetic biologists have an upbeat attitude, envisaging the applications of exciting research. Despite these (extremely generalised) differences, the conference revealed interest and excitement on both sides about the possibility of collaborating, and a mutual appreciation that the major challenges of the Anthropocene are human influences on climate, biodiversity and ecosystems. Finding practical, long-lasting and safe solutions to the plethora of challenges currently facing humanity, is of mutual interest.

Mitigating Risks and Maximising Benefits
The possible applications of synthetic biology to conservation are many. Synthetic biology might enable us to develop more efficient methods of energy production, freeing up habitat to recover. It could mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions by releasing carbon-consuming algae. It could revive extinct species such as mammoths and dodos in a process known as ‘de-extinction’. It could engineer coral that is tolerant to increases in ocean temperature and acidity, conditions which are predicted to worsen under climate change. It could help to control or eradicate invasive species. It could restore degraded land and water for agriculture, sparing the need to destroy more natural habitat. It could even create pesticide- and parasite-resistant bees that can continue to pollinate our crops generations into the future.

However, he potential risks of synthetic biology to conservation are as many as the potential benefits. The effects of synthetic biology on conservation could be direct, (e.g. engineering resistant species), or they could be indirect (e.g. changes in land use). These effects could be negative, for example, if they lead to land use change of primary habitat as has been associated with GMOs and biofuels. They could also be positive, for example if they reduce the impact of human activities, allowing habitat to recover to its natural state. Synthetic biology might lead to unexpected impacts on ecosystem dynamics and risks the unintended escape of novel organisms into open ecosystems. Releasing synthetically engineered organisms into wild environments could alter ecosystems, reduce natural genetic variability or lead to hybridisation events that might display native flora and fauna, and generate new invasive species. Synthetic biology might also distract attention and funds from more traditional conservation efforts, whilst attracting protest from human rights and environmental organisations. Both conservationists and synthetic biologists are conscious of these potential risks, and are committed to careful consideration on a case-by-case basis. Not all synthetic biology is the same; some could be of huge potential benefit to conservation and sustainability whilst carrying minimal risks, and it is these that we should pursue.

Original Article:

() Oryx

Summer Science Events

By Claire Asher, on 17 July 2013

July has been an exciting month for science shows – The Royal Society Summer Exhibition ran from the 2nd to the 7th at Carlton House in London, and on Friday 5th July, Soapbox Science took to the south bank for it’s third annual event celebrating women in science.

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Technology for Nature. Dr Robin Freeman (UCL, ZSL) demonstrates Mataki technology

At this year’s Royal Society Summer Exhibition, Technology for Nature, a joint project between UCL, Imperial College London, Microsoft Research and the Zoological Society of London, held a successful stall demonstrating a number of applications of technology to ecology and conservation. A particular highlight was the demo for Mataki, a new tracking technology which can detect behavioural information as well as locational information from a small tracking device attached to an animals back. This technology is being used to monitor the movement and foraging behaviour of sea birds. Professor Kate Jones and Dr Robin Freeman were amongst demonstrators during the week, talking to the public.

“We have a pressing need to better assess the behaviour, distribution and status of many species, and new technologies provide new ways to achieve this. From recording the dynamic behaviour of animals in the wild, to better assessments of distribution and diversity – within the Technology for Nature unit we’re developing and using new technological innovations to understand the natural world on which we rely.”
– Dr Robin Freeman (UCL CoMPLEX, Zoological Society of London)

Now in its 10th year, the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition is an annual event showcasing cutting-edge research from around the UK. Each year, teams of scientists congregate in London hoping to demonstrate and communicate their science to the public, to students and fellow scientists, to policy-makers and the media. With interactive demonstrations, along with evening events and talks, the Royal Society Summer Science exhibition is a highlight of the year. This year, 24 Universities were selected to bring their scientific innovations to the exhibition, covering topics as diverse as dark matter, glacial melting, antibiotics and ecological monitoring. UCL’s Technology for Nature, in collaboration with Imperial College, ZSL and Microsoft Research, demonstrated three of their innovative projects aiming to apply technological advances to ecological problems.


One of the highlights of the Technology for Nature stand was the Mataki demonstration, that had members of the public step into the shoes (wings?) of seabirds to test out the revolutionary technology that can not only track animals, but also monitor behaviour. The small, light weight, economical tracking device produces data that enables different types of flight and foraging behaviour to be identified.

Robin Freeman, a research fellow in UCL’s CoMPLEX and head of the Indicators and Assessments unit at ZSL, helped develop the technology: “The Mataki platform provides an open, low-cost tool that researchers can use to record animal movement and behaviour in the wild. By providing a powerful tracking technology in a small, low-cost package, I hope that more researchers are able to gather the rich data that we need to understand the changing behaviour of animals in the wild.”

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Professor Kate Jones (UCL, ZSL) and Dr Robin Freeman (UCL, ZSL) engage with the public to demonstrate Technology for Nature

Professor Kate Jones, from UCL’s Center for Biodiversity and Environment Research, has been working on a number of projects aimed at improving the ease of detecting and identifying bats, and utilising crowd-sourcing as a means to tackle large data sets generated by such technology.

“Developing easily accessible tools with which to identify wild species is critical to engage more people with the natural world and to monitor any changes. Imagine a world where you could hold up your smartphone when you hear a bird call and it would identify the species – like a Shazam app for biodiversity. We are still a way from that point yet but we are progressing with such tools for bats where the first stage is to develop an online tool that can identify bat echolocation calls. We are now developing that into a smartphone application”
– Professor Kate Jones (UCL CBER)

Find out more about the Technology for Nature project.

Soapbox Science


Julie Dunne (Bristol University)
talking about the history of dairy

As the long awaited summer finally arrived in London, so did 12 of the UK’s top female scientists, ready to communicate their science to the public in one of London’s most unusual science events – Soapbox science. Here, scientists are challenged to enthuse, entertain and educate a diverse audience about their research, without the aid of powerpoint slides and scientific jargon. Armed with nothing more than a few props, a Soapbox and a lot of enthusiasm, this years inspiring female scientists were challenged to explain their research to the public.

Soapbox science is a collaboration between the Zoological society of London and L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science, which aims to highlight the struggles faced by women pursuing a career in science and challenge the public’s view of women in science. Soapbox science was created by Dr Seirian Sumner and Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, hoping to inspire a new generation of female scientists.


Professor Laura Piddock talks about antibiotic resistance, and Dr Emily Cross demonstrates how the human brain perceives complex movement.

Co-organiser, Dr Nathalie Pettorelli (Zoological Society of London) says: “Now in its fourth year, Soapbox Science is a platform to showcase the most eminent female scientists in the UK, and to highlight some very serious issues that we have witnessed as mid-career scientists: the disappearance of our female peers”. Dr Seirian Sumner (Bristol University) adds “Through events like Soapbox Science and our Campaign for Change, we want to actively bring women of all career stages together and promote that women can have a career in science”.

This year’s Soapbox scientists covered topics ranging from gut bacteria to the neuroscience of dance, from computing to antibiotics. Find out more about Soapbox Science

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Soapbox Science in Gabriels Wharf. Dr Zoe Schnepp (University of Birmingham) explains superconducting seaweed and green nanotechnology.