Synthetic Biology: Potential Game Changer for Climate Change Adaptation in Africa


While the rapid expansion of synthetic biology has so far primarily focused on microbial science and human health, it has the potential to impact various scientific sectors including agriculture, climate change and the environment. This article focuses on examples of ongoing synbio innovations that could potentially help improve the climate change adaptive capacity of communities in Africa.

The climatic context

The need for new approaches to facilitate adaptation to climate change in Africa has never been more urgent. The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II highlights countries in Africa as expected “…to enter unprecedented high temperature climates earlier in this century than higher latitude countries… with the capacity for adaptive responses to offset the risk significantly reduced. Crop yield losses, even after adaptation, are expected to increasing rapidly…the limits of adaptation are already being reached in coral reef ecosystems…and many are facing more net losses than net gains in biodiversity.”

Context on synbio

Synthetic biology (synbio) is a breakthrough technology that has the potential to revolutionize scientific innovation to address some of the most systemic challenges of this century. Synbio involves the artificial manufacture of biological components, such as enzymes and cells, or functions and organisms, which do not exist in nature. Existing organisms can also be modified to perform useful new functions. Synthetic biologists study gene sequences – the order of the four chemical building blocks called “bases” that make up the DNA molecule – to understand the relationship between how these “bases” are arranged and the functions and abilities of organisms in which they are contained. Once the “base sequence” of a certain section of DNA can be directly linked to a specific function, the scientist can then chemically create mimics of that section of DNA in a lab, and cut out the unwanted section from the organism’s DNA and replace it with the new manufactured section, so that they produce the desired proteins, characteristics or functions.

Uses of synbio in Africa

Biodiversity conservation. Coral reefs, found mostly in the shallow oceans along the coastline, provide the perfect place for marine life, especially colorful fish. African corals are a big tourist attraction. The reefs along the east coast of Africa and the islands of Zanzibar, Seychelles and Madagascar provide employment for thousands of people in diving and other related industries. One of the greatest threats to ocean biodiversity is the bleaching and death of coral reefs caused by warming oceans due to climate change. Scientists from Stanford University in California demonstrated how gene editing can be used to identify genes involved in the ability of corals to resist heat stress. This understanding strengthens efforts to identify potentially more resilient populations and to develop and evaluate possible improvement actions.

Meeting the challenges of agriculture due to rainfall variability. Much of the vulnerability of African agriculture to climate change lies in the fact that its farming systems remain largely rainfed. Rising temperatures, in particular the number of extremely hot days, as well as changes in rainfall, are the main climatic variables affecting agriculture on the African continent. Synthetic biologists have identified the genes that encourage a plant’s root system to go deeper into the soil to allow plants to access lower water tables. They plan to engineer genetic pathways to promote deeper roots, which will allow crop plants to resist stress, sequester more carbon and enrich the soil. This finding could help scientists understand how plants deal with seasonal variations in rainfall and how to help plants adapt to climate change.

Clean energy. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) required special attention to increase energy efficiency, electrify heating and capitalize on synthetic fuels and raw materials in industry if the world tried to limit the rise in global temperatures by 2050 to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Africa, despite its vast natural resources for renewable energy, is lagging behind in its aspirations for a lean energy transition due to technological and financial limitations. Synbio researchers have identified an organism that naturally manufactures ethanol from industrial waste gases. This organism was engineered with “pathways” from other organisms to enhance its performance and is capable of producing unique molecules for valuable chemicals and fuels. The first commercial plant in China using this technology has produced more than seven million gallons of ethanol from steel mill emissions that can be converted into jet fuel and other products.

In the village of Mwamanongu, Tanzania, water most often comes from open holes dug in the sand of dry riverbeds and is invariably contaminated. Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons

clean water. Portable scarcity is one of the predicted outcomes of climate change in Africa due to increased temporal and spatial variability of rainfall coupled with increased unpredictability. This was estimatedd that by 2025, 14 African countries will face water scarcity and 11 countries will face water stress. Already around a third of the region’s residents live in drought-prone areas, and there is a country where a sixth of a city’s drinking water supply comes from recycled wastewater that has been subjected to very sophisticated treatment processes.

Researchers are develop synthetic organisms as sentinels and signallers to engineer the formation and dissolution of biofilms and to optimize the recovery of valuable products in anaerobic wastewater treatment. A company uses synthetic biology to create granular material which attracts and sticks to micropollutants such as pesticides, pharmaceuticals and certain chemicals in wastewater.

The above examples by no means encompass the full scope of applications of synthetic biology for climate change adaptation in Africa, they are however an introduction to demonstrate the diversity of use and potential critical importance of this new technology for the region. Partnerships in the development of science and careful and effective regulation were highlighted as key drivers for Sybio’s advancement in Africa.

Celia Tebandeke Nalwadda conducted this research as Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow.



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