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

The general laboratory protocols of all labs at the University of Illinois prioritize both researcher and environmental safety. The Institute of Genomic Biology is secured by a proximity card system, minimizing any undesirable public exposure. These same precautions also keep the research environment isolated and free of non-laboratory standard entities. If there is ever any sort of hazardous incident, regardless of its level of permeation within or outside of biosafety areas, the University has campus wide alert measures already in place. This system, the Illini-Alert, is capable of informing the entire student and faculty body within seconds via SMS and e-mail.

That being said, our projects have no focus on toxins or dangerous reagents otherwise stated in our protocols, which are reagents present in most genetics labs operating under biosafety level 2 conditions. In regards to researcher safety, all team members and advisors have been trained and certified to work within closed-door biosafety level 2 labs. Although the organisms we worked with (E. Coli) are classified as biosafety level 1, our facilities operate under level 2 conditions.

The protein that our main project utilizes has an affinity for certain mRNA sequences and is able to inhibit processes as such. The containment, manipulation, and disposal of our samples and subjects are handled the same way as any other active biological agent. Following standard protocols and working in a biosafety level 2 lab, our procedures minimize environmental contact as well.

Do any of the new BioBrick parts (or devices) that you made this year raise any safety issues? 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 new biobrick parts do not raise any safety issues. The protein that we work with binds site-specifically and cleaves single stranded RNA, which means that its safety is approximately equivalent to that of restriction enzymes. The PUF protein itself is harmless in the environment.

In addition, the PUF gene is not cloned into mammalian expression vectors, so it cannot be expressed even if it were to enter mammalian cells. Our gene does not produce any toxins, and the organisms that we used to test our gene are not infectious. In the unlikely case that the PUF gene were to be expressed in mammalian cells, it could have potential translational modification effects.

Is there a local biosafety group, committee, or review board at your institution? What does your local biosafety group think about your project?

Our research work was conducted in the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. This institution and its researchers must comply with the guidelines set forth by the Office of Safety and Compliance (OSC). Thus, we were required to complete three web training modules online before beginning laboratory work. Two web training modules were produced by the Division of Research Safety (DRS) on campus, and one was produced by the IGB itself.

The two modules administered through the DRS dealt with general laboratory safety and biosafety. The biosafety training module was sufficient to prepare us for work in our level two biosafety laboratory in the IGB. All team members passed these training modules, and records of training completion were retained by IGB staff. In accordance with its standards, the OSC also trained us to use any potentially hazardous equipment. We worked closely with IGB faculty and staff advisers who monitored our progress with understanding of safety requirements. Overall, our team members made efforts to comply with the safety regulations of our institution to make sure our work did not present any safety hazards to ourselves or those around us.

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?

In the rapidly growing field of synthetic biology, it is of utmost importance that safety standards are updated as technology advances. In future years, iGEM projects will become not only more complex, but more commercially viable. Safety within in the laboratory, within society, within industry, and perhaps even within the body all must be carefully considered. In order to deal with these magnitudes of complexity, each team should ensure that safety regulations are clearly articulated and standardized. This includes standard biosafety level 2 protocols. In future operations, we plan to appoint a officer in terms of laboratory and project safety.

Additionally, the incorporation of safety concepts into each team’s human practices project would not only allow the iGEM team to think more deeply about safety, but the general public as well. Furthermore, iGEM teams with applications in industry should strive to partner with companies to explore the different safety standards already in place and those that need to be developed with the introduction of some synthetic biology advance.

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