Addressing biosafety is an important issue for synthetic biologists and concerns surrounding synthetic organisms escaping out of their controlled environment, has prompted research into novel bio-containment methods. Many iGEM teams that require their genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be released into the wild, use kill switches (inducible genetic devices that cause cell death) to justify their projects and address concerns about the harmful effects GMOs can have in the environment. Unfortunately, kill switches are poorly categorised in the standard registry of genetic parts and there is a distinct lack of quantitative data on their suitability as bio-containment methods, thus preventing them from being used with confidence.
No containment systems created in iGEM are robust: they lack the above quantification and are mostly one mutation away from failure.
Our project seeks to: investigate the efficacy and efficiency of different types of kills switch; to quantify their robustness after several generations; to compare the stability of these devices once integrated into the genome vs when carried on a plasmid.
Through a series of interviews and questions, we are trying to identify what really is a kill switch? What do university students understand as a kill switch and how does that compare to academics or those working in industry? The purpose of this is to elucidate whether a kill switch can reliably be used as a biosafety measure or if it is misclassified.
Our Human Practice section focuses on two key areas: improving public engagement and education, and equality and diversity. We hope to tackle the lack of education of synthetic biology in the UK and overseas by highlighting what a small team of university students can accomplish with limited resources and limited time. It is our hope that this would encourage larger companies and the government to invest more in synthetic biology education, seeing the potential benefits that the field can have and how it can encourage students into all core science subjects.
For public engagement and education, we are targeting both secondary school students and university level education. We want to highlight that there are potentially endless applications of the field, due to its interdisciplinary nature, as well as uncover why synthetic biology may not be as positively received as we would like.
iGEM could produce support resources, for the existing[Biology] A level, which introduce ideas of synthetic biology and which could be used as ‘stretch and challenge’ materials by teachers.
We have attended a number of schools and science fairs to educate school students, and teachers, on the benefits and applications of synthetic biology. This has been made possible largely through the creation of our board game (BioMech) which introduces students to the fundamental principles of synthetic biology as well as some key biological concepts like mutation, in a fun and engaging manner. We have made presentations to these students to emphasise the importance of synthetic biology and how it already impacts their day to day lives.
Through a unique series of fun but professional interviews and podcasts, we hope to have presented the work of academics and other researchers in an engaging but relatable way. It is our hope that this angle gives us the ability to both make synthetic biology a more attractive field of science to the public but also help the public understand how the scientific community is trying to combat the potential risks.
For equality and diversity, we feel we can make a significant impact locally, at the university in highlighting the disparity of gender distribution but also make the wider community aware of a lack of diversity within science. We also want to further illuminate the work of Paris Bettencourt in 2013, with their Gender Study on synthetic biology and iGEM.
We have used different forms of media to engage both students at the University of Exeter and the wider public, with the problem of sexism and lack of diversity in science. We have made two different videos: the first highlighting students’ initial reactions to sexism in science and the second probing the work of academics at the university into equality, diversity and inclusivity. We will also be hosting a radio show on Xpression FM, (University of Exeter’s campus radio), in which diversity in science will be discussed. We have worked closely with the Equality and Diversity office at the university as well as the Athena Swan Group at the university to support our findings with statistics and data in both the College of Life and Environmental Sciences and the College of Engineering Maths and Physical Sciences. We are also working hard to arrange a debate through the university debating society on whether science discriminates against women.
We are hoping to further conduct a follow up study of Paris Bettencourt’s 2013 Gender Study. We want to look at whether gender distribution has improved in iGEM since their study, to begin to understand whether they made a significant impact on the field.