Brave New World? Biotechnology for conservation

Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes


The real thing! Underside of a horn removed from a northern white rhino.
The real thing! Underside of a horn removed from a northern white rhino. C: Michael 't Sas-Rolfes

The world of species-centred conservation faces an interesting emerging challenge: the uncertain future role of rapidly-advancing biotechnology, notably synthetic biology and biofabrication. Almost a century ago, Aldous Huxley wrote his disturbingly prescient novel Brave New World, which contemplated a future world of genetically modified humans and social manipulation, facilitated by anticipated advances in science and technology, many of which are now becoming a reality. Humanity is now confronted by a bewildering array of imminent possibilities, following our recently established ability to ‘read’ and ‘edit’ genomes and also use 3D printing and additive technology to manufacture a range of biomaterials such as cells, tissues and organs.


Leading conservation thinkers have only recently started to consider and write about the implications of synthetic biology for the conservation of nature, with one article observing that: “Gene editing, gene drives, and de-extinction of wild species are moving from theory to plausible conservation practice, but they face a host of practical, regulatory, and public perception issues”. Recognizing the potential challenges, the IUCN adopted a resolution on synthetic biology at its 2016 World Conservation Congress and, more recently, established a task force to oversee this resolution.


My personal interest in this topic has developed as a consequence of the potential implications for rhino conservation. Two potential applications have gained recent prominence. The first, following the death of the world’s last surviving male northern white rhino, is the idea of recreating the subspecies – or at least a hybrid thereof – using previously harvested biological material. I won’t dwell on this idea, which has both its proponents and its critics: the whole topic of de-extinction is fascinating and worthy of far more discussion than my space here allows.


Cultured horn in a petri dish (Image courtesy of Pembietn)
Cultured horn in a petri dish (Image courtesy of Pembient)

The second application is of greater direct interest to me, because of the questions it raises about policy toward rhino horn trade. This is the idea of creating a synthetic form of horn, possibly including rhino DNA and other rhino-like biological material, as an alternative to the real thing. One of the leading proponents of this idea is Matthew Markus, co-founder and CEO of a Seattle-based biotech startup company called Pembient. I have been following the evolution of Matthew’s ideas on this for several years and discussed some aspects to consider more than two years ago. I also watched him present these ideas to a very hostile audience at a CITES side event during the 2016 Conference of the Parties in Johannesburg. His latest thinking is to create a product that not only attempts to displace the highest end of the rhino horn market, i.e. ornamental carving, but simultaneously provides a more environmentally-friendly alternative to plastics used in the manufacture of bangles and other jewellery items.


As a somewhat idealistic animal protection activist, Matthew favours a solution to the rhino poaching crisis that involves no direct harm to the animals at all. He therefore initially expected his proposals to be welcomed enthusiastically by international NGOs working to save the rhino, especially those with an animal welfare bent. To his surprise, they were not. A range of organisations, from more mainstream conservation-oriented to more fundamentally protectionist issued strong statements opposing the idea of producing and selling synthetic rhino horn outright. Some have gone a step further and attempted proactive legal action against him. Of all the organisations that have considered his proposals, TRAFFIC stands out as having conducted an in-depth analysis to draw more measured conclusions.


A black rhino with an intact horn
A black rhino with an intact horn. C: Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes

At the 2016 CITES CoP, the Parties also initiated a process to examine the full implications of trade in specimens produced through biotechnology, to ensure that it does not pose a threat to CITES-listed species. Two weeks ago I attended a joint CITES Animals and Plants Committee meeting in Geneva, where a specialist consultant presented a fascinating overview of the some of the science and possible applications of biotechnology. The reaction to this presentation was muted as it did not delve into the legal implications – that part of the report remains to be written and will be eagerly absorbed by all those attending the forthcoming 70th CITES Standing Committee meeting in October this year in Sochi, Russia, where further recommendations or decisions may be made.


Whereas the CITES Animals and Plants Committees deal with scientific issues, the Standing Committee deals with enforcement issues, and it is the latter with which most actors at CITES, NGOs included, seem most concerned. For now, the prevailing mood seems to be that anything that resembles the real thing should simply be regulated as if it were the real thing. In other words, if rhino horn and ivory trade are banned, then anything that closely resembles these products should simply be banned too. It seems that, in facing the coming Brave New World, the wildlife trade regulators aren’t feeling very brave at all!


Read more about Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes' research here