Team:Paris Bettencourt/Human Practice/perception


iGEM Paris Bettencourt 2012

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.

When we first began our project, I was really skeptical about the long term goals of releasing bacteria into the environment. However, during the debate we held some members of the "government", arguing in favor of the release of genetically modified bacteria, reminded the audience that there was a time when some held the opinion that airplanes were infernal machines that would only end in doom. We were questioned by judges in Amsterdam, who said that bacterial containment is impossible. I was inspired by the debaters. We have two options, we can either accept that biological containment is impossible, or we can try to study this problem and develop containment devices. In the end we may come to the conclusion that the risks are too great to ever release GE bacteria into the environment, but if we do not try to explore this problem we will do a great disservice to all the beautiful and brilliant iGEM projects dedicated to bioremediation.

Human practices definitely brought a new dimension to our project. The question of biosafety is too broad to be tackled from the "narrow" point of view of a pure synthetic biologist, and we realized how important the contact and the discussion with the population is when dealing with such a sensitive topic. In our case, both the risks and the potential benefits are huge, leading to very polarized opinions among the interviewees. I strongly believe that scientists must make an effort to increase the transparency of their results and not push their ideas if the population doesn't accept them, in order to reduce the gap that now separates them from the rest of the population.

The most remarkable thing I learned from our human practice project is the level of public awareness on genetic modification. I am not a biologist myself, and before I did not really care about this field--I always thought 'the experts knows better'. But after seeing the debate and even the discussion among high school students about this field, I was surprised with their opinion showing how much they actually aware. I guess it may be a bit related with the different education culture in France and in my country where the students are less encouraged to speak about their thought; but as a prospective scientist I learned that I should care more about public opinion, as well as expose myself with new knowledge and information.

Our project was initially based upon the idea of genetically modified bacteria that could be sprayed along with DDT. The bacteria would degrade the DDT after some time, hopefully having a less drastic environmental impact, as the DDT would soon disappear. We started to consider consider human practices as an important issue and realized that the DDT project could have other unaddressed dangers. What if the DDT degrading genes were transferred to other species? DDT degrading gene could be transferred to mosquitoes, and then our system would have done something far, far worse than the its potential for good. But I know that there must be worthy risks in terms of environmental applications of genetically modified bacteria. Through human practices I learned that most people would agree, through a proper weighing of benefit vs. risk, certain projects should be applied in the environment as long as we use proper genetic safeguards for safety.

I could not imagine how anyone in his/her right mind could be opposed to synthetic biology and its applications. I was convinced that if people were, it was because they did not really know much about the field, because they are ignorant. Therefore if we educated them, they would realize how GREAT SB is and would accept it.

Now, thanks to the human practice project, I realized that this naïve vision of things is completely false and also very dangerous! First realization: People have the legitimate right to be opposed to synthetic biology. There is no link between ignorance of SB and rejection of its applications Second realization: Every citizen should have a say in what technologies they want or do not want. Experts should not be the ones making the final call! Third realization: Education is very important. The aim should be to give people all the necessary tools to understand what exactly is going on, and so that they can therefore discuss in the most illuminated way possible if they want or not the technology as part of their world (education’s aim should absolutely not be making people agree with us and accept synthetic biology! This vision is dangerous!!!)

I came from Physics and until last year I didn't know anything about synthetic biology and biodegradation. However, I was always interested in projects intended to save the world. Or, at least, how to deal with problems caused by humanity? Due to that, I always was concerned about the big amount of waste produced by peoples. After I learned that Synthetic biology develops methods to solve those problems, I came up with the idea to degrade insecticide using bacteria, but with a delay: first, to kill insects, and after some delay, to degrade insecticide to avoid side effects. At that time, I had no idea about gene transfer, and that scientists don't release any synthetic bacteria to the environment. For me it was really surprising! How we could benefit from such great ideas like iGEM projects without having any possibility to use bacteria outside the lab? A lot of question appeared. Is it possible to create a safe containment system? What is the risk? Would ordinary citizens be interested in such projects? Those questions gave rise to our iGEM project, and human practice in parallel with theoretical and laboratory work partially gave me an answer to it.

What I found good from the Human practice part, was the interview we had with specialists, which was very interesting, because we could have had different point of views, and in the same time some really good and rich discussions. Also the report was good for me to keep a trace of the historical events that drive us in our situation. The debate was a good idea and we couldn't have expected more from it.

Concerning teaching to the high school student synthetic biology, it's very disturbing for me, because in one hand, biotech companies give tools to high schools to build transgenic crops, in order to make their reputation better and not in a total altruistic way. On the other hand, we suggest to teach synthetic biology to kids, and for me it's hard to know whether it's really to teach them how to be critical toward this technology, or in fact doing the same as biotech companies, because they're still young and most of them won't see limits, even if they are taught. I think that at least, it should be taught in university for biologist, which is not done so far, unless being in a synthetic biology curriculum.

We started to consider human practices as an important issue since the beginning of the project. Indeed we show that a lot of previous iGEM project and our project first ideas had the goal to be released in nature but none of them had a serious safety device. During human practice I realize that zero risk doesn’t exist and nevertheless we can use genetically engineered organism for specific usage and assets risk for this specific usage as long as we discuss it with a large population. I learn that most of the people would agree that certain projects should be applied in the environment as long as we use safety devices.

I always thought the public opinion on genetically modified organisms was based on fear and ignorance which led to the irrational behaviour and irrational arguments. This bothered me and still bothers me very much because it is completely opposite to how I deal with problems I encounter. We should try to make as much informed and educated opinion as we can and by doing this try to overcome our fears, often based on our wild imagination triggered by people trying to exploit this basic human emotion. Throughout our intensive work on issues of human practices my opinion about public changed resulting in more understanding and concern from my side. I was glad to hear that the public is willing to accept risks if they see considerable benefits. But my main realization, selfish in a way, was that I as a synthetic biologist won’t be able to change the world if I don’t make public feel safer by doing what I do the best – science. That’s why I accepted to do an iGEM project which deals with biosafety from a scientific point of view. Synthetic biologists should not contain themselves to only living in the lab, in an ivory tower detached from the public, but rather collaborate with the public to reach the best decisions for community. In a sense, we should shift from making change only in the lab to making change in the whole world.

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