Synthetic biology and nature conservation

IUCN and its Members are initiating development of a policy on the implications of synthetic biology in nature conservation. Recent technological advancements in synthetic biology create both significant risks and significant opportunities for nature conservation, as well as challenges in creating a meaningful and coherent policy to guide its potential applications. IUCN is therefore following a rigorous process to engage its Member organisations and experts in the development of the IUCN policy.

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Risks and opportunities of using synthetic biology in nature conservation

The Convention on Biological Diversity defines synthetic biology as “a further development and new dimension of modern biotechnology that combines science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the understanding, design, redesign, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems”.

This is important for nature conservation.

On the one hand, synthetic biology could impose new risks for nature. Implemented or governed poorly, it could, for example, introduce genetic pollution into native species, jeopardising their persistence. Other risks could be indirect, such as through use of synthetic biology to open new agricultural frontiers, threatening biodiversity through land conversion.

On the other hand, synthetic biology could open new opportunities for nature conservation. For instance, it may offer solutions to currently unsolvable threats to biodiversity, such as those caused by invasive alien species and diseases. Such opportunities could also be indirect, perhaps through allowing sustainable intensification of agriculture and thus reducing pressure on natural ecosystems elsewhere.


Challenges in developing a policy on synthetic biology and nature

Shaping a coherent nature conservation policy on synthetic biology is challenging for multiple reasons. The technology is expanding extremely rapidly. Collaboration between countries is essential, as is collaboration across levels of governance from indigenous peoples and local communities through to multilateral environmental agreements. The subject is complex, and misconceptions are rife. Maybe most challenging, the issue is highly polarised across the conservation community (and society as a whole), with small proportions of conservationists strongly opposed to or supportive of the technology, and many as-yet-un-decided what the best policies might be.


IUCN’s process to date in developing its policy for synthetic biology and nature conservation

At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawai‘i, USA, in September 2016, IUCN Members adopted WCC 2016 Res 086. This Resolution mandated the development and publication of an assessment on synthetic biology and biodiversity conservation, under the authority of the Chairs of all six of IUCN’s independent expert Commissions, and the IUCN Director General.

This assessment was published in 2019 as “Genetic Frontiers for Conservation”, with an accompanying “Synthesis and Key Messages” for policy-makers.

Building from this, the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille, France, in September 2021 adopted WCC 2020 Res 123, establishing a process for development of an IUCN policy, to include both an inclusive process across the Union and the appointment of a Policy Development Working Group.

IUCN Council deliberated the Resolution at Part I of their 108th Meeting, online in November 2022. Their Decision C108/2 approved both a detailed process for implementation of the Resolution, and Terms of Reference for specific bodies to be involved.

IUCN Council further discussed the process in their 109th Meeting in Gland, Switzerland in May 2023, and their Decision C109/8 approved a revised process for implementation of the Resolution and revised Terms of Reference for the specific bodies involved. This documentation adds specification to the planned inclusive process (including for it to encompass a “Citizens’ Assembly” established through stratified random selection from across the IUCN Membership) and to the planned Policy Development Working Group. It also establishes the process for the call for nominations for the Policy Development Working Group (currently open to IUCN Members and IUCN Commission members; deadline also 21 July 2023), the call for information (currently open to IUCN Members and IUCN Commission members; deadline 1 September 2023), and the recruitment of trainers and facilitators through IUCN procurement (Requests For Proposals; deadline 21 July 2023).


Funding for development of the IUCN policy on synthetic biology and nature conservation

The IUCN Council  endorsed a request for financial support in implementing the Resolution, sent by the IUCN Director General to IUCN Government Members and philanthropic foundations. This resource mobilisation will trigger the implementation of the policy development, with the anticipation that a draft IUCN Policy on Synthetic Biology and Nature Conservation is ready for consideration by the IUCN Membership at the 2025 IUCN World Conservation Congress.

Importantly, IUCN is not approaching private sector and campaigning organisations for financial support, to reduce any risk of perceived conflict of interest.