Synthetic Biology (SynBio)
In 2018, a number of scholars joined together to consider the impacts of synthetic biology on indigenous peoples in the Pacific. A copy of their briefing paper is available on this website.
The full text of the original article is divided into nine sections:
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Indigenous peoples and local communities will require a seat at the table in any discussions regarding release of gene drive modified organisms into the environment. This emerging technology in synthetic biology is intended to reduce threats from invasive species but may also inflict unforeseen impacts on an ecosystem. Especially in the Pacific, indigenous peoples face increased harm to their places, resources, and practices. As decision-makers create policies and guidelines for gene drive research, indigenous peoples must be proactively engaged.
Synthetic biology combines techniques from molecular science and genetic engineering to change the natural genetic makeup of living organisms to favor certain traits. While molecular cloning is an early and familiar technique, synthetic biology has been drastically improved in recent years with gene drive technology, especially CRISPR/Cas9. Designed to spread a chosen trait throughout a wild population to reduce its size, this technique can control invasive species or pests such as disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) are two groups with important similarities and differences. They are both essential allies in uplifting issues associated with environmental health and social justice. They may both include people who are regularly underrepresented and disproportionately harmed by the actions of corporations and other parties. Meaningful discussion regarding IPLC must consider the lands and natural resources on which they rely. In many cases, the health of the land and survival of the people and their way of life are symbiotic.
Invasive alien species (IAS) pose one of the most significant global threats to biodiversity today. These species are introduced, frequently through human action, into an ecosystem outside their natural geographic range, and have a demonstrable environmental or socio-economic impact. Although they may have been deliberately introduced to control other invasive species (e.g., mongoose to control rats), IAS can have devastating effects throughout ecosystems. Of the top 10 countries with the highest recorded IAS, 60% are in the Pacific.
The history of science and technology is rich with examples of well-intentioned advances having unintended consequences. Researchers and managers must take a precautionary approach to gene drive technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9, and engage indigenous communities in any proposed application of gene drives in the Pacific. Many areas considered for gene drives are within ancestral territory of indigenous peoples, who are hereditary stewards of the lands and waters on which they depend for survival and cultural identity. Gene drives have the potential to impact indigenous territories and significant places, biocultural and subsistence resources, and traditional and customary practices.
Gene drives can have cascading effects on ecosystem flora and fauna on which indigenous peoples depend for subsistence and cultural identity. Because of their intimate and historical relationships to resources and landscapes, these communities possess knowledge that should be respected and considered. These communities must have an active role in decision-making. Potential avenues include engagement in international conventions and national, state and local laws, regulations and policies, as well as scientific and professional codes of conduct.
Current governing systems for biotechnology do not easily apply to gene drives due to their goal of intentionally spreading a genetic trait through a population, and the irreversibility of their effects on ecosystems. Also, their potential for transboundary effects will necessitate international cooperation.Appropriate policy tools must be tailored to these factors and incorporate robust public engagement. Local and traditional knowledge can and should inform gene drive research, governments implementing gene drives should obtain the free, prior, and informed consent of the governed, and engagement activities can contribute to place-based capacity building.
A precautionary approach must be adopted immediately regarding application of gene drives. If conservation demands safe gene drives, then indigenous peoples and local communities demand their seats at the table. Governments, organizations, and scientists must adopt a proactive approach to creating policies and guidelines which incorporates potential trans-boundary effects and unintended consequences. The creation of these policies and guidelines must engage IPLC – using free, prior, and informed consent – so that key issues can be incorporated: the interrelationships of natural and cultural resources, the value of local and traditional knowledge, and potential impacts to significant places, resources, and practices.