How will synthetic biology and conservation shape the future of nature? That was the question up for debate at a Wildlife Conservation Society conference last week. The answer? In more ways than the headlines would have us believe.

Synthetic biology, while still an ill-defined concept, involves the design and construction of novel biological parts, devices and systems, and the re-engineering of natural systems for useful purposes. Although not typically associated with nature conservation (more on that in a later post), one synthetic biology application seems to have captured the public imagination above all others: ‘de-extinction’.

As outlandish as it might sound, de-extinction offers the ability to resurrect extinct species using the tools of synthetic biology. Despite few success stories (the first ‘un-extinct’ individual lasted a mere seven minutes), de-extinction has single-handedly drummed up much of the hype around how synthetic biology could aid conservation (see this National Geographic article and this TEDx series). Hardly surprising, really: what better poster child than a resurrected woolly mammoth?!

But while last week’s conference inevitably touched on the matter (mammoths, thylacines, passenger pigeons… and who could resist the odd Jurassic Park allusion…), the examination of the synthetic biology-conservation interface was refreshingly broad. Despite what many depictions of synthetic biology suggest, utopias and dystopias are not the only possible futures (as this New Scientist piece nicely articulates). Reality is likely to lie somewhere in between.

And it’s this in-between realm that holds the more plausible, not to mention useful, applications of synthetic biology to conservation. Whether it be producing efficient biofuels, deploying sensors that detect and break down pollutants, transferring nitrogen fixing capability into cereal crops, or halting the spread of deserts, the non-headline-grabbers arguably offer the greatest promise.

The mammoth, it seems, is a bit of a red herring (figuratively speaking – not even synthetic biology can pull off that trick!) – doing a disservice to the diversity and ingenuity of synthetic biology, and its potentially beneficial applications to nature conservation.

The sooner we shake off this distraction, the sooner we can move from hype to hope.

For a more extensive overview of a fascinating three days, see Ed Yong’s account here. And for those of you in the Twittersphere, check out #futureofnature for a flavour of the discussion.