The United Nations Biodiversity Conference is currently winding down in Cancún, Mexico after nearly two weeks of events, discussions, and presentations on global strategies for conserving and sustaining biodiversity. One of the many exciting presentations was delivered by SynBioBeta CEO, Kate Wildauer, who participated in a December 8th panel discussion on the opportunities, challenges, and environmental benefits found in synthetic biology.
Wildauer was one of four panelists who together explored all corners of synthetic biology, from ethical concerns and risk assessment to economic opportunity and the development of new biotech tools. As a representative of the U.S. synthetic biology business space, she spoke alongside Henrik Toft Simonsen of the Technological University of Denmark, Robert Friedman of the J. Craig Venter Institute, and Mark Tizard of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
Wildauer’s message was one of hope, highlighting the potential of synthetic biology to be economically invigorating and ecologically beneficial. She emphasized the point that synthetic biology is part of the next industrial revolution.
“The message from our session was really to highlight the great potential of the industry,” she said. “Biology will drive the next great technological advances just as physics and chemistry have in the past.”
Indeed, synthetic biology is quickly becoming an ecological and economic force to be reckoned with. As the industry grows, ethical concerns about its technological outputs have mounted in parallel. Two concerns that were aired at the panel discussion related to the economic impact of GMOs on farming communities and on human health (though the latter of these has been thoroughly debunked).
However, in the face of these fears, Wildauer warned against the dangers of stifling the industry’s growth with over-regulation. She believes that the availability of educational resources will be the key means of adapting to the impending economic shifts brought on by advances in synthetic biology.
“Every technological development has consequences and society must deal with these changes. As technology changes manufacturing and the economy, investment in education becomes critical and the skills needed will shift,” Wildauer commented.
About the UN Biodiversity Conference
The UN Biodiversity Conference is the biennial event hosted as provided by the treaty known as the Convention on Biological Diversity. The goals of the Convention are to develop strategies for conserving and sustaining biodiversity and maintaining equitable sharing of genetic resources. The treaty was ratified in 1992 and as of 2016 the Convention has 196 parties and 168 signatories. The United States is the only UN member that has signed but not ratified the treaty.
Since being enacted, the conference has yielded a number of noteworthy agreements. These include the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of 2000, which established the use the precautionary principle for new genetic technologies, and the Global Plant Conservation Strategy of 2002, which set forth a 16-point plan for slowing the rate of global plant extinction. Another product of past conventions was the Nagoya Protocol of 2010, which puts forth a legal framework for achieving the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources. All of these agreements are of consequence to synthetic biology, and the industry’s representation at the Convention by Wildauer and others is a positive step to ensure that insider voices are heard by regulators.
Mainstreaming synthetic biology
The theme for the currently underway 2016 conference is “mainstreaming biodiversity for well-being,” a topic that is near and dear to those in the synthetic biology industry who are developing solutions in health, agriculture, and other high-impact fields. As synthetic biology continues to break into mainstream consciousness, it is important to address ethical concerns and misconceptions through productive dialogue.
Kate emphasized SynBioBeta’s commitment to providing a stage for these conversations to take place. “There is a tremendous need to encourage dialogue and understanding and SynBioBeta can play a role in highlighting opportunities for dialogue,” she said. “Our conferences and courses help to fulfill this need and we hope to offer additional venues in the coming year.”