Team:Missouri Miners/Safety


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Ethics Synthetic biology is an emerging field that combines engineering approaches to biological systems. It is defined as “The engineering of biological components and systems that do not exist in nature and the re-engineering of existing biological elements; it is determined on the intentional design of artificial biological systems, rather than on the understanding of natural biology” (Synbiology, 2005). Synthetic Biology has the potential to completely change the face of this world for the better. Technology is already beginning to advance at a rapid rate and soon the opportunities will be endless. However, there are some important ethical concerns with this new field of research that have not yet been examined in full. The following sections will cover a selection of ethical concerns and examine the consequences of each. The most frequently cited ethical issue with synthetic biology is bioterrorism. Many fear that with the decreasing costs of equipment and supplies and the streamlining of lab techniques, anyone could create a deadly weapon. It has been shown that deadly viruses, such as Polio and the Spanish Flu, can readily be recreated (Synthetics, 2007). According to researchers Tucker and Zilinskas, there are really only two types of Bioterrorism threats that could affect us today: the “lone operator” and the “biohacker”. An example of a lone operator would be someone nursing a grudge that has access to, and knowledge of, lab equipment. An example of a biohacker would be someone who recklessly modifies organisms out of curiosity with little of no concern for safety. However, it is also argued that creating a deadly virus is only one step out of the many needed to initiate widespread bio-terror (Tucker and Zilinkas, 2006). This has led some to conclude that just because the materials are made cheaper doesn’t mean it is any easier than before to create a weapon. A second issue regarding the ethics of synthetic biology is the regulation and monitoring of the field. Because this is a relatively new area of research, the effects, good and bad, are not yet clear. Unbiased monitoring systems such as The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues have just recently been established to oversee the research done in synthetic biology (Bioethics, 2010). Previously, there was no system of checks and balances that could determine whether specific research is ethical, safe, or even necessary. As our technology advances it is important to keep our ethical viewpoints up to date. It remains to be seen whether this window of unregulated research will yield the most significant advances in synthetic biology. Limitations due to regulation slow the scientific community and could possibly impede research. An ethical dilemma has arisen where the community will soon have to choose between the advancement of science and the prevention of bioterrorism by limiting technological developments (Synthetics, 2007). Regardless of the regulation path chosen, it is arguable that now is the time when the public needs to be made aware of synthetic biology and its consequences. The general public is not thoroughly informed of the benefits or risks associated with this research. Some feel that, because of the important implications synthetic biology has on society, the public should “be able to have an input into the manner in which it is regulated” (Synthetics, 2007). Another widely cited ethical concern of synthetic biology is the conservation of natural genomes. The complex system of gene regulation is not perfectly understood and nobody today can claim to know the effects, positive or negative, of artificial genes existing in the gene pool. As synthetic biology becomes more commonplace artificial genes are beginning to show up in nature. Biosafety is the term applied to preventing the risks associated with synthetic biology. Most labs practicing synthetic biology are aware of the risks and take preventative measures to reduce them. Naturally occurring organisms that contain synthetic elements have been dubbed “biofacts” (Karafyllis, 2007). There is current debate as to whether these organisms should be considered natural or artificial. No commonly defined boundaries between the two have been established. The last ethical topic to be discussed here regards the necessity of synthetic biology. This aspect of synthetic biology is not as frequently examined as other areas but deserves a significant amount of thought and consideration. There are numerous technological advancements made possible through the use of synthetic biology. However, these advances may not even be necessary. As so eloquently suggested by Michael Crichton in his classic novel, Jurassic Park, scientists become so preoccupied with whether or not they can do something, they never stop to think whether or not they should. Considering the possible risks associated with synthetic biology, scientists are asking themselves now more than ever if the research is worth it. One example of this is the creation of a cheaper malaria drug. It is very possible to engineer a cheap way of producing a malaria drug that could be used to help large portions of poorer, southern countries (Ro, 2006). However, dispersing this drug could “lead to an increased dependence on rich countries and companies” (Synthetics, 2007). It is well known that there are other ways to reduce mortality rates due to malaria that do not stunt the development of these countries. Therefore, the community must ask and decide if synthetic biology is necessary in this instance. Synthetic biology has the potential to greatly transform our world in positive and negative ways. We all have the responsibility to consider the ethical implications of our research and the research of those around us. Advances in a scientific area require advances in the way the area is applied to and interpreted by society. We must review outdated ethical conceptions of scientific technology to ensure they accurately address the issues at hand. Because of the significant impacts synthetic biology could have on our lives we must seriously consider the ethical arguments for and against it.

Would any of your project ideas raise safety issues in terms of:

  • researcher safety,
  • public safety, or
  • environmental safety?

Our project does not introduce any new parts that could be considered hazardous. Any hazards in our project would be related to working with E. coli. We are constructing a hybridized scaffolding protein to allow cell-surface adherence of multiple enzymes. We do not foresee any potential detrimental effects of these engineered cells to researchers, the public, or the environment. In the future, teams and researchers who use this construct will have to be cautious about which enzymes they attach to this construct, as the selection of enzymes could affect safety concerns.

Do any of the new BioBrick parts (or devices) that you made this year raise any safety issues? If yes,

  • did you document these issues in the Registry?
  • how did you manage to handle the safety issue?
  • how could other teams learn from your experience?

Our project did not create any new parts that could be considered hazardous. We simply adapted the cellulosome from Clostridium thermocellum to attach to the cell surface of E. coli.

Is there a local biosafety group, committee, or review board at your institution?

If yes, what does your local biosafety group think about your project?

Our institution, Missouri S&T, has an Institutional Biosafety Committee, on which our team's main advisor serves. The committee reviews projects and research regarding DNA synthesis and recombination. This committee is very supportive of our project and has not found any threat to the environment, public, or lab workers present in our research. They caution that researchers should be safety-conscious when using this system for different combinations of enzymes.

Do you have any other ideas how to deal with safety issues that could be useful for future iGEM competitions? How could parts, devices and systems be made even safer through biosafety engineering?

Future iGEM teams could take many precautions to ensure biosafety is maintained. The easiest step for teams to make would be to use a non-virulent strain of bacteria as their chassis. The teams could take this one step further and mutate their chassis so it becomes auxotrophic for multiple nutrients and can only grow on the provided media. This would ensure that the bacteria will not survive in the environment. Other precautions that teams could take involve preventing unintentional activation of their DNA system. For example, students could engineer an inducible plasmid so their system only functions when in the presence of a specific drug. Another method to prevent unintentional activation could force the cell to undergo apoptosis and digestion of DNA except under desired conditions. If a cell were to escape into the environment, it would immediately be destroyed once it leaves the controlled laboratory conditions.