iGEM 2012


The field of synthetic biology recognizes biosafety as an important consideration alongside its revolutionary research and rapidly emerging technologies.

Our team has held all safety concerns to the highest standard by complying with all general laboratory safety guidelines, recognizing and minimizing potential risks and hazards, consulting our institutional biosafety committee, and exploring how safety concerns can be addressed in the wider iGEM community.

Jonathan with his PPE!Nathan uses a separate coat in the TC room!Jenna always wears gloves when doing work in the lab!

1. Would any of your project ideas raise safety issues in terms of researcher safety, public safety, or environmental safety?

Our team is working on RNA strand displacement reactions in mammalian cells. Most of our team worked in a BL2 lab with E. coli, and a few members of our team worked in an adjoining BL2 tissue culture facility with Human Embryonic Kidney cells. These cell lines are uncontaminated, and we follow standard BL2 protocols to ensure our safety. Potentially hazardous chemicals, such as dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), are handled according to recommendations listed on materials safety data sheets (MSDS). The team participated in 4 hours of classroom training administered by MIT Environmental Health and Safety and was closely monitored by a MIT EHS representative during all lab work. We were in compliance with local and national safety and lab-specific equipment regulations to avoid potential cross-contamination. All researchers donned personal protective equipment including gloves, laboratory coats, and eyewear when necessary.

2. 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?

We have developed many BioBricks this summer. However, none of our parts have potential hazards for any organisms. We made the decision not to pursue viral infection as a means of delivery of nucleic acids to mammalian cells, ensuring our risk was fully minimized. Additionally, no killer proteins or any protein known to trigger a serious immune response in researchers or other organisms were used. We encourage other teams to follow our lead -- utilizing transient lipid transfection methods instead of viral infections and look forward to interacting with all mammalian-oriented research teams.

3. 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? If no, which specific biosafety rules or guidelines do you have to consider in your country?

At MIT the Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) office serves as our biosafety committee for all of the labs on campus. An EHS representative for the Weiss Lab approves each student’s biosafety and lab-specific training. All students receive BL2 lab training and students working with mammalian cells received additional blood-borne pathogen training. EHS training includes General Biosafety for Researchers, Managing Hazardous Waste, General Chemical Hygiene and lab-specific training. We also gave a presentation on our project to staff at the EHS office in mid-July, who evaluated our practices and issued full compliance for our project with no additional safety concerns. We are also planning on giving a talk in mid-October to MIT’s Synthetic Biology Working Group, where we will receive additional feedback and lead discussion for safety concerns.

4. 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?

We mainly used the mammoblock standard to create our parts, which allowed for safe storage of these parts. Since the mammoblocks use bacterial entry vectors, the mammalian parts can be stored in a BL1 setting, facilitating safer shipping and submission of parts. We hope that when future iGEM teams work with mammalian cells, they use the mammoblock standard to allow for coordinated and safer contribution of parts. Additionally, we rely on safe methods of nucleic acid delivery -- ensuring other teams will easily be able to transition to mammalian work in a safe manner. Finally, we have been characterizing a mammalian promoter (U6-TetO) that can transcribe short strands of RNA as RNAi could be a very robust method for implementing a mammalian kill switch on essential genes rather than employing a far more dangerous toxic protein or substrate.