Philipp Böing

Founder: Darwin Toolbox, SynBioSoc / UCL iGEM organizer, University College London


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How can we have a good "science and society" debate on using Synthetic Biology for Geoengineering?

Dear TED community,

We're a group of students looking for good ideas for a Synthetic Biology / Geoengineering Debate for an event at iGEM (international genetically engineered machine competition), and we thought: whose minds are better to tap into than yours!

The iGEM competition allows teams of students to create novel synthetic biology projects. ( more: )
The Dutch Rathenau Institute has called teams to submit proposals for a "Science and Society" synthetic biology debate and we think an interesting question would be around the topic of "Using Synthetic Biology for Geoengineering".
(call for debate proposals: )

For example, in our own project, we will be working on a bacterial system that could be used to collect and recycle micro plastic waste in the ocean. This is of course potentially very powerful and very controversial.

We would really like to hear your thoughts and opinions on this question. What do you think are the major issues in using genetic engineering / synthetic biology to tackle problems such as pollution, climate change, etc.? Do you have links to interesting materials about this? What are the questions we aren't asking but should be asking?

Thanks a lot,

Philipp on behalf of UCL iGEM

  • May 29 2012: The potential for unintended consequences. Is there any simulation programs that could tell you what happens if you get Bacteria to "harvest" those plastics in the ocean? Would the Bacteria get energy and grow on the plastic? Would this grow be capable of causing some shift in microbial populations? Darken the waters? Cluster?

    I think the main concern will always be unintended consequences.

    The next one might be "do we really need synthetic organisms to geoengineer the planet"?

    Anyway, I think it is an interesting idea to think of geoengineering using biological methods rather than the crazy stuff about spreading chemicals into the atmosphere. Which could be another idea for a debate: chemicals versus synthetic biology: which is riskier?

    Maybe these suggestions help. Maybe not. Have lots of fun at iGEM!
  • May 29 2012: Thank you for your comments:) Yeah we thought the potential for unintended consequences would be the main issue as well.
    But we can never have anything that is risk free, if we reduce the risks to an appropriate level, would it ever be a practical option? (for example igem teams have in the past constructed parts that can minimize horizontal gene transfer from synthetic organisms to other microorganisms in the environment.)