Synthetic biologists, and iGEM teams in particular, design Genetically Engineered Organisms (GEOs) to benefit people and communities around the world. However, many proposed applications necessarily involve the deployment of GEOs in natural environments. These dreams can never be made real without technical, legal and ethical guidelines for the use of GEOs outside the lab. Our project addresses this serious need from our perspective as safety bioengineers, citizens and humans.
We have developed the bWARE containment module to substantially reduce the risk of Horizontal Gene Trasfer (HGT) while remaining compatible with existing iGEM devices. A GEO may first perform its beneficial function during a programmed delay. Then our system activates, irreversibly degrading DNA throughout the population, leaving no genetic information behind. Multiple cooperative systems provide redundancy against inevitable mutations or external stresses.
Human practice considerations influenced every stage of our design process. Given different biosafety modules that may be used singly or in combination, what are the best practices for associating specific safety systems with specific applications? Given that no biosafety system can completely eliminate the risk of HGT, how safe is safe enough? Who should decide when the benefits of GEOs outweigh the risks, and what information do they need? We have collected and indexed existing iGEM biosafety projects. We have engaged expert and public opinion to develop a new proposal for qualitative and quantitatve documentation of BioBrick safety devices.
Biosafety is an exciting design challenge, an essential enabling technology for synthetic biology, and a fundamental ethical obligation of all bioengineers. We expect that modular containment systems like bWARE will be standard ware in the next generation of iGEM projects.