Science and Economics

Synthetic Biology and the Convention on Biological Diversity

Synthetic biology will have implications for biodiversity conservation and therefore for the objectives of biodiversity-related conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its Protocols.

At its last Conference, Parties to the CBD decided, not without some hesitation, that a useful starting point for the purpose of facilitating scientific and technical deliberations under the Convention and its Protocols, was to use the operational definition of synthetic biology proposed by the Ad-hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) on Synthetic Biology whereby

synthetic biology is 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”.

There is limited direct empirical evidence of the benefits and adverse effects on biodiversity resulting from the organisms, components and products of synthetic biology. For many, the potential applications of synthetic biology to develop efficient and effective ways to respond to challenges associated with bioenergy, agriculture, health and chemical production, among others, are enormous and overshadow any potential risks. For others, these applications may have adverse effects on biodiversity through invasiveness, persistence, unintended effects caused by accidental introduction into the environment and the potential consequences as a result of altering natural populations.

Unchartered territory – Understanding Digital Sequence Information

Linked to this issue, and arguably the most contentious, is the issue of “digital sequence information” (DSI).  Digital sequence information may characterize genetic material found in nature, that is designed, mutated, or degenerated, or that is purely hypothetical. Currently, most digital sequence information is the product of sequencing technologies that have become faster, cheaper and more accurate in recent years. Digital sequence information permeates nearly every branch of the life sciences and modern biology today, allowing for computational analyses and simulations that are significantly cheaper and quicker than biological experiments run in a laboratory.

Clarity around terminology when referring to DSI in the Convention is still elusive. Some are of the view that DSI is already included in the definition of genetic resources contained in the Nagoya Protocol and thus its application falls within its scope; others argue that the term genetic resources within the CBD refers to tangible or physical material while DSI is intangible and outside the provisions of the Convention and the Protocol. 

Some countries have argued that it is impossible to regulate digital DNA, and so it should be excluded from the scope of the Convention and its Protocols entirely.  Others argued that it should be explicitly included in the scope of the Convention and the Nagoya Protocol 

Relevant Decisions of the Convention and the way forward

Decision XIII/16 Digital sequence information on genetic resources

  • Puts in place a mechanism to gather information on synthetic biology for review at the next COP;
  • Invites Parties, and other Governments, organizations and stakeholders to submit views and relevant information on “potential implications of the use of digital sequence information on genetic resources for the three objectives of the Convention”;
  • Requests the Executive Secretary to commission a fact-finding and scoping study;
  • Establishes an AHTEG to consider the information collected and submit outcomes to a SBSTTA prior to COP14. 

Decision XIII/17 Synthetic biology

  • Considers as a useful starting point for the purpose of facilitating scientific and technical deliberations under the Convention and its Protocols, the operational definition of synthetic biology by the AHTEG on Synthetic Biology;
  • Invites Parties to take into account appropriate socio-economic, cultural and ethical considerations when identifying the potential benefits and adverse effects related to synthetic biology. 

NP Decision 2/14 Digital sequence information on genetic resources

  • Decides to consider at its third meeting any potential implications of the use of digital sequence information on genetic resources for the objective of the Nagoya Protocol;
  • Invites Parties, other Governments, indigenous peoples and local communities, and relevant organizations and stakeholders to include in their views and relevant information submitted in accordance decision XIII/16 information relevant to the Nagoya Protocol;
  • Decides that the ad hoc technical expert group referred to in that paragraph will also serve the Nagoya Protocol by considering the information relevant to the Nagoya Protocol in its compilation, synthesis and study.
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