Chapter 7. SynBio and Environmental Release

When we consider the potential of synthetic biology, synthetic life-forms, and even entire synthetic ecosystems, we are first overwhelmed with the fantastical possibilities. Next we begin to work out the what-ifs, including, “what if our novel organisms make it out into the environment?” How might they interact, change, or adversely affect the environment?

While environmental release is one of many challenges facing those working in the emerging field of synthetic biology, the concept of invasive species working their way into our environment and wreaking havoc is a problem human beings have faced for quite some time. The snakehead fish, a voracious predatory species from Asia, has made its way into North American waterways. Its ability to survive even when the bodies of water it inhabits are dried out make it difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate. A combination of legislation and economic incentives to catch the fish are attempting to keep their numbers in check, but in all likelihood, the environment and the people who inhabit it will have to learn to coexist with this invasive species.

In other cases, biological management strategies have worked to contain and control invasive species. In Australia, the elm leaf beetle is an invasive species detrimental to Australia’s elm tree (also imported). To control them, their natural predator, a parasitic fly known as Erynniopsis antennata, is used to prey on the beetles. ...

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