Synthetic biology meets the Sustainable Development Goals

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People, the planet and prosperity are at the core of the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development. The agenda is a comprehensive action plan with the aim to stir socioeconomic and environmental development back onto a sustainable path. In 2015, the UN announced the 17 sustainable development goals(SGDs) which target all dimensions of sustainable development. The adoption of the SDGs by world leaders is a historic hallmark of multilateral effort towards a more sustainable, healthy and equal world, yet building on the largely unfulfilled millennium goals it also is a poignant reminder of the situation’s urgency. 

While not legally binding, the SDGs call for action by all countries and governments around the world who have committed to implementing these goals into their political agenda and to carefully monitoring the progress made towards them. 

Substantial efforts have been made and countless initiatives have been dedicated to meeting the SDGs. They have been implemented into business and management; foundations have dedicated resources to individual SDGS; educational institutions have tailored programmes to the SGDs, and created competitions such as iGEM, a non-profit organisation fostering collaboration to fuel advance in synthetic biology, to encourage innovations that can be applied to the SDGs. 

iGEM exemplifies the immense value of contributions from diverse, sometimes seemingly unrelated, fields of studies. Synthetic biology in particular is a discipline that builds on biotechnology to redesign and engineer organisms for novel purposes and functions. Areas of research include synthetic genomics, synthetic metabolic pathways engineering, protocell construction, xenobiology and more. With paradigmatic advances in genetic engineering and genome editing, such as the discovery of the bacterial immune system component CRISPR-Cas9 which can be re-appropriated to precisely edit gene sequences, synthetic biology has gained significant momentum and is employed in various ways to tackle SDG-related issues. 

While synthetic biology can be harnessed in many more contexts, it has shown to be particularly helpful in the following areas: 

Bioremediation and biosensors: Bioremediation refers to the employment of micro-organisms and engineered biosensors for the removal of pollutants, pathogens and contaminants from the environment. 

Biofuels: to decrease reliance on non-renewable energy sources, synthetic biologists can design organisms for the creation of biofuels.

Bioplastics: Plastics generated from renewable biomass materials like agricultural by-products are a great opportunity to decrease dependence on fossil energy sources. 

Agriculture: From increasing crop yield to pest control, there are various approaches scientists can take to find solutions. 

Synthetic drugs and chemicals: Synthetic biology can not only help decrease the dependence on plant and animal sources for drugs and chemicals, which has substantial ethical implications, but is also an exciting tool to develop less environmentally damaging chemicals and drugs with fewer side effects. 

Suppression of disease vector populations: with the help of gene drive technology, synthetic biology can aid the suppression of disease vector populations, such as malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. 

And many more …

It is evident how these points relate to the SDGs. Synthetic biology can help fight pollution and neutralise environmental hazards, counteract climate change, alleviate humanitarian and socioeconomic crises like hunger, disease, inadequate access to water, sanitation, hygiene and more.  

However, at the same time, it is important to consider the possible risks and problems that arise when harnessing the benefits of synthetic biology. Genetically engineered organisms may have devastating effects on ecosystems if released accidently. Gene drive technologies may introduce new diseases and synthetic products may have toxic effects on naturally occurring microorganisms. Using large amounts of biomass may decrease soil fertility and biodiversity, and ultimately contribute to climate change by altering land-use. 

It is important to take these concerns seriously and to consider them strategically when employing synthetic biology. If done adequately and sustainably, synthetic biology will soon become a core pillar of efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals for a healthier, more sustainable and more equal future. 

Written by Fynn Comerford and edited by Ailie McWhinnie.

Fynn is a member of the 2020 University of Edinburgh iGEM team who have developed a cell-free biosensor that can detect a wide variety of molecules. Specifically, the team has focussed on its ability to detect contaminants such as arsenic, pathogens and heavy metals in water. Read more about their project in Fynn’s article Finding NEMO in the Sustainable Development Goals.

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