CEXS-UPF: Synthetic biology as a strategic tool to prevent anthropogenic effects on the environment

CEXS-UPF: Synthetic biology as a strategic tool to prevent anthropogenic effects on the environment

News from CEXS-UPF

Several studies show the relationship between activities of human origin (intensive exploitation of land, the destruction of habitats, pollution and global warming) and the deterioration of ecosystems, which can undergo abrupt transitions towards extinction. Given the gravity of the situation, human effectiveness at preserving the environment and preventing the planet from experiencing a catastrophic transition is questionable.

Ricard Solé, principal investigator at the Complex Systems Lab of the Department of Experimental and Health Sciences (DCEXS), is the author of a scientific article published in the journal Biology Direct that considers the use of synthetic biology in order to counteract anthropogenic effects on our planet.

The research team composed of Ricard Solé, Raúl Montañez and Salva Duran-Nebreda, proposes using genetically engineered microorganisms as support tools in existing strategies to curb the current trend of environmental deterioration.

Two main courses of action are proposed in the design of microorganisms:

a) Modification of existing organisms and the creation of a dependency link between them needed to survive (mutualism). This strategy could prevent the transition to a desert state in arid ecosystems (40% of the planet's ecosystems).

b) Design of organisms capable of surviving only in a given substrate, such as industrial waste. A suitable design would allow these organisms to be viable only in these artificial environments.

According to these two possibilities, the researchers are developing four possible strategies, notable among them being the design of microorganisms that release hygroscopic molecules in arid environments or the modification of existing organisms so that they feed on waste plastics.

More information:

Ricard V. Solé, Raúl Montañez, Salva Duran-Nebreda. Synthetic circuits design for terraformation. Biology Direct, doi:10.1186/s13062-015-0064-7, July 2015.