Team:Paris Bettencourt/Human Practice/Overview


iGEM Paris Bettencourt 2012

Human Practice


Human concerns arose organically during the construction of the bWARE containment system, and human practices were intrinsic to every stage of our project. In designing and building our best genetic containment system, we often encountered limits on the ability of science alone to measure our performance. When is a biosafety system safe enough? The answer to this question is partially scientific, to the extent that horizontal gene transfer events can be observed and modeled. But the answer is also social, because ultimately the public will decide if a biosafety system works well enough to use. The only way for us to know if bWARE is a success is in conversation with experts and the community.

We propose and implement new ways for iGEM to organize and present biosafety information, both for scientists and the public. We believe our reforms to the BioBrick registry will help synthetic biologists to find the best biosafety tools for their application. We also imagine the beginnings of a quantitative, context-specific biosafety database serving citizen scientists. Practical safety data will feed an informed public forum.


  1. Interviews with experts which enabled us to have a broad overview of the state of the art. Read More
  2. Interaction with high-schoolers to have first-hand appreciation of reactions from first exposure to synthetic biology
  3. We screened previous iGEM team’s wikis to trace the evolution of biosafety concerns and devices in the iGEM community, focusing on proposed containment systems. Read More
  4. We focused on horizontal gene transfer as the main generic risk factor.
  5. Comprehensive report where we addressed the concerns raised by synthetic biology per se, that is, as a technique. Then, we analyzed the specific concerns that arise from synthetic biology’s potential applications in nature.  Read More

Main Conclusions

  1. Societal interaction:
    • The need to raise awareness of synthetic biology in the population so people can decide in the most enlightened way possible what they want from this new technology and of its applications (A),
    • The need of a discussion between society’s different protagonists to set goals, define what they would consider as benefits and acceptable risks (B),
  2. Best research practice:
    • Zero risk is impossible to achieve as no containment system can be 100% safe (bacteria can always escape by mutations) (C),
    • There is a lack of quantitative data evaluating the probability of failure of any synthetic biology engineered system, in particular containment systems (D),
    • There is a lack of quantitative data evaluating the risk of HGT assuming containment systems failed (E),
    • The compiling of the wiki screen shows that no containment systems created in iGEM is robust: they lack the above quantification and are mostly one mutation away from failure. We call for major effort of the iGEM community to quantify available containment systems and search for new solutions (F),
    • The need for an INDEPENDENT cohort of scientists to test experimentally any application of synthetic biology that requires releasing in the environment (G),

You can find the full list of conclusions here

Main Proposals

  1. Societal interaction:
    • Organizing a workshop on synthetic biology and a tour of our lab for 60 high school students, (addresses issue A and B) Read More. First initiative for teaching synthetic biology in French high-school leading to a high-school iGEM team. Ultimately, we would like interaction with high school or middle school students to be a requirement for an iGEM gold medal.
    • Organizing a debate with 10 non expert students from various background, and then opening the debate to the floor (the public), which was made up of both experts and non experts, (addresses issue A and B) Read More.
    • Creating a page to explain horizontal gene transfer to non scientists. Go to HGT page
  2. Best research practice:
    • Creating a system as robust as possible, that is many mutations away from failure (this is what our bench work has been all about) (addresses issue C and F),
    • Creating a safety page on the biobrick registry where all the safety devices that exist are listed and characterized (included evaluation of their robustness) in order for iGEM teams to pick the most appropriate device to add to their newly created genetic circuit. Ultimately, we would like the integration of safety modules and risks assessments to be part of of every synthetic biology project from the very start (already listed in the safety page or created de novo by the team) (addresses issue D, F), Go to safety page
    • The community has to build a collection of bio-safety devices for future engineers
    • Each synthetic biology application should assess and disclose a list of application-specific risks and hazards.
    • Development and adoption of a safety chasis for synthetic biology research and prototyping.

You can find the full list of proposals here

Achievements :

  • Team aWAREness

During this summer, all of us gained knowledge in synthetic biology and learned lab skills, but that wasn't all. From the beginning of our brainstorming sessions, safety questions came up in our discussions. Our mutual interest in this topic lead us to center our project on safeguard systems and human practices related to public awareness and risk assesssment. This meant that we had to work hard not only on our wet lab project, but also on human practices. To our delight, this effort resulted not only in community outreach, but also changed our own opinion on biosafety in the context of synthetic biology. We feel that our Human Practice project changed each and every one of us.Here are our personal perceptions.