Synthetic biology is about more than just slaving away in labs, mixing together tiny amounts of colourless liquids. In particular, our project lends itself well to making an impact on the wider public. Addressing such an important issue as the global energy crisis is a cause worthy of public engagement, which we indeed strived for over the course of the project. It turns out that countless hours spent talking to parents of students at school, writing articles for the school newspaper and presenting talks about our project were not wasted. Mr Zivanic’s Twitter prowess and Jake’s endlessly enthusiastic rambling about our project did not go unnoticed, and by the time Jamboree came around students, teachers and parents alike were engaging with members of our team all the time, asking probing questions about where our money was going as well as raising some of the more serious ethical and moral issues surrounding synthetic biology. Science is meant to be shared with the public and made accessible to everyone, and we believe we have succeeded in this with the human practices side of our project.
IGEM HUMAN PRACTICES
Our BPV is unlikely to pose any significant health risks to the consumer or other possible users as modified cyanobacteria and E.coli (standard laboratory strains DH5alpha and DH10, ACDP Hazard Group 1) do not pose a threat to humans or other animals or plants. Moreover, our project is likely to have little to no effect on biodiversity since it will be kept independent from local ecosystems. In terms of modifying the bacteria during experiments, appropriate precautions have been taken to minimise any risk. For instance, liquid and solid waste has been autoclaved with 100% expected degree of death, enough to ensure appropriate disposal of waste (autoclaves are examined and validated annually) . Moreover, Virkon disinfectant has been used to deal with any spills in the laboratory. Our genetic modification does not change the infectivity of the microorganisms or allow them to persist in the environment and although the plasmids used in the cloning procedures contain an antibiotic resistance marker that can be used for selection, the antibiotics used are not the same ones used in frontline patient treatment.
We see our project as a step towards the production of more efficient BPVs. In particular, our wiki should hopefully help future teams to solve or circumvent the problems that we encountered when dealing with synechocystis. However, it is unlikely that we will see any significant uptake of our current Biological Photovoltaic cell in real world conditions for a number of reasons. Even with the current theoretical rate of efficiency improvement, the BPV's efficiency will be significantly below grid parity. Combined with the difficulty involved in scaling up production of the BPV, this means that they are unlikely to be widely adopted in the near future. Despite this, our work is a step forwards - if only a small one - and we hope that future teams will improve on our project. In the future, we hope that BPVs will be viable alternatives to traditional energy sources. After all, though our BPV is far from perfect, it has proved to be capable of generating electricity on small scale, showing that our application is practical and, given substantial optimisation, could be an important energy source in the future.
There are long term benefits to adopting biological photovoltaic cells since they are capable of self repair and self assembly. This means that in the future BPVs could be a cost-effective alternative to current energy sources. However, at the moment BPVs are fairly expensive to build, largely due to the cost of materials. In particular, platinum electrodes, which show the greatest efficiency, are very expensive - though one can use cheaper carbon electrodes. Nonetheless, the lack of maintenance and ease of setup are important advantages and may mean that in the future BPVs are preferred to traditional solar cells, which can be very costly to service should they be damaged. Further innovations, such as the use of nitrogen-enriched iron-carbon nanorods to replace the platinum currently used might possibly reduce the cost of BPVs whilst keeping efficiency at high levels. Though BPVs are still fairly inefficient, it is likely that our work will help bring BPV nearer to parity with Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs), which have achieved a limited amount of market penetration in niche areas such as wastewater treatment. Moreover, it is important to note that thanks to increasing awareness about the environmental impact of fossil fuels, governments across the world have begun to increase funding for renewable energy sources such as solar energy. As a result, it seems realistic to expect subsidies for BPVs. This should further reduce their cost. Such subsidies are likely to be similar to those that already exist for solar power. In the UK, those who install solar panels are paid a set rate for every kWh of electricity they produce for themselves and can also sell excess energy (which would otherwise go to waste) back to the electricity supplier, earning up to £4.85 per unit of electricity. Thus, governmental subsidies will also go some way to bringing down cost levels, making BPVs feasible in the long term.
Future iterations could help to solve the world’s energy problems. BPVs could provide a consistent and easy-to-maintain energy source for less developed countries with limited expertise due to their ease of assembly and ability to self-repair. Moreover, their natural reliance on sunlight makes them a perfect fit for countries near the equator, providing a reliable source of energy in otherwise difficult conditions. Therefore, they can act effectively wherever traditional solar cells do well - that is, everywhere from South Africa to the Sahara as well as other areas that receive a great deal of sunlight.Our Plans to Address This
As a result of the lack of information on genetic engineering, our team is considering setting up a club for younger members of our school to gain a basic understanding of the principles of genetic modification, and provide an easy route for pupils to access relevant material and learn further about the subject if they so wish. The club will be run by current iGEM members, so we will be able to answer questions and inform younger students about our current project and about synthetic biology as a whole, possibly allowing for Question and Answer sessions giving students a different perspective of what iGEM consists of beyond books and online research. This will help spread general understanding about synthetic biology, and possibly spark interest that could lead to future iGEM teams!
We have also focused on spreading the word through social networks, most noticeably on the Facebook page IGEM-Clsb-Uk. We have carefully documented many crucial stages, from growing our cultures to building our first Biological Photovoltaic cell, and have spread the word amongst family, friends and other iGEM teams, such as Sheffield iGEM and the University of Edinburgh iGEM team. Posts from our official page can be seen hereand our Twitter account can be seen here.