Friend or Foe: Synthetic Biology and the Disunified “Renewable Revolution”

By Eleanor Carrano

The “renewable revolution” has emerged as a common flag under which both sides of the raging environmental debates of today have found some impetus to work together. Perhaps this is because the idea of renewable resources suggests the possibility of avoiding many arguments altogether by drowning fights over the best way to protect and use dwindling resources in a sea of plenty. 

“Renewability” possesses that common-sense, something-for-nothing appeal which has at times appeared to make allies out of the fuel and agribusiness industries, environmental advocates, and scientists. The combined zeal of these forces—however substantive their unity of purpose may be —has been overwhelming, challenging an occasionally tickled public with solutions as innovative as urine-generated electricity and biofuel from coconuts. 

Friends of the Earth (FOE), a global environmental activism network, presented the darker side of calling all hands to this apparently common cause in a 2010 report entitled “Synthetic Solutions to the Climate Crisis: The Dangers of Synthetic Biology for Biofuels Productions.” The report presents a complex picture in which the enthusiasm and cutting-edge research of scientists have converged with the profit interests of large fuel corporations in creating a dangerous situation for the environment, all while supposedly furthering the goals of environmental advocates. 

Sometimes mistaken for a coalition, the complicated interaction between these forces has little to do with ideological solidarity, as FOE’s report makes amply clear.  Any existing coalition, the report suggests, takes the form of financial partnerships between “big bio” and “big oil,” which FOE claims have sided against more legitimate environmental concerns. According to FOE, bioengineering corporations and oil companies seeking new fuel options have encouraged the belief that anything touched by the wand of biotechnology automatically joins the ranks of sustainable solutions to energy and environmental crises. FOE identifies synthetic biology as a new opportunity for this misplaced faith to grow. 

FOE defines synthetic biology as “the use of computer-assisted, biological engineering to design and construct new synthetic biological parts, devices and systems that do not exist in nature and the redesign of existing biological organisms,” making it an extreme form of genetic engineering. As described by the Center for Humans and Nature, synthetic biology “aims to understand the molecular fundamentals of the metabolic and reproductive functions of simple single-cell organisms precisely,” thereby enabling scientists “to manipulate and rearrange existing organisms in a standardized manner, and to equip them with characteristics that do not occur in nature.” 

According to FOE, synthetic biology differs from precursory forms of biotechnology in that it is “not limited to the modification of natural organisms, but also extends to the construction of new life forms.” One of the field’s main applications is the engineering of bacteria, yeast, or algae to break down biomass, such as sugarcane or corn, and excrete biofuels. Industrial chemicals, natural products, and medicines are also slated to be produced in this manner. Supporters of synthetic biology maintain that these methods will hasten society’s independence from petroleum, sequester carbon dioxide, and even eat up oil spills. They also predict that as potential feedstocks for fuel-excreting microbes become more varied, agricultural land will be freed up for producing food instead of crops grown for bio-fuel, such as ethanol from corn. 

What FOE and other opponents of synthetic biology fear is that dependence on fossil fuels will be traded for a “bioeconomy,” in which all biomass will take on an unprecedented value. They warn that the push to efficiently utilize “waste” could go too far, stripping resources even further and emptying “renewable” of its meaning. 

An economic climate in which all vegetable matter—down to the leaf and branch—is a potentially profitable input raises concerns that “marginal land” and “waste product” will be defined for the purposes of industrial gain. The fact that many small-scale agriculturalists in developing countries rely on such “marginal” holdings for their livelihoods may be overlooked, along with the importance of plant “waste” to biodiversity and soil health. 

Besides these fears, there is the pervading concern that synthetic organisms may wreak ecological havoc in an even more rapid manner if inadvertently introduced to the environment and allowed to out-compete naturally occurring species. 

Synthetic biology is more than a circuitous route to the inevitable conclusion that you can’t get something for nothing; it is a distressing reminder that the “renewable revolution” is not as unifying a cause as one would wish it to be. Beyond a thin façade of commonality, it still demands an ordering of scientific, environmental, and industrial interests. If these sectors are to present a united front to the problem of dwindling resources, they must consider how close they are to asking the impossible of an already over-taxed planet.

Is making natural resources even more commercially valuable an intelligent way to ensure their preservation, or will it only hasten their depletion? Is concern for the renewability of a profit source the same thing as concern for the continuance of that source for its own sake? These serious questions loom ahead as the modern world continues to assess its methods and motives for preserving the environment. 

Eleanor Carrano is a junior at the University of Dallas majoring in Biology. The University of Dallas is home to the Eta of Texas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.