As the field of synthetic biology moves out of its infancy, molecular biologists, community biology laboratories, and iGEM teams around the globe are making revolutionary discoveries with more frequency and greater impact. These discoveries consist of foundational advances, novel applications of synthetic biology, and improvement of traditional processes to make them more efficient and cheaper. Despite the rapid growth of the field, several applications face barriers to implementation, including the lack of an effective, cheap, and easy-to-use biocontainment method. In the development of our method, we conducted interviews not only with synthetic biology experts, but also with individuals working in various industries that use microbes or genetically engineered organisms (GEOs). Feedback on our proposed biocontainment method from synthetic biology experts allowed us to reassess our project design, our definition of success, and how we would demonstrate that success. Oftentimes, individuals working in relevant industries were very knowledgeable about the biological concerns raised by our methods and offered insight on the design or testing of our method. With industry experts, we discussed the potential for application of our biocontainment method in their companies or industries.
However, while speaking to these experts, it was clear that lack of an acceptable biocontainment method was not the only barrier preventing implementation. The United States lacks legislation regulating the implementation of GEOs, and, as a result, does not provide a streamlined process for application of GEOs in an open environment. We spoke with several policy experts, including the Virginia Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture, and the current and previous director of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, to understand the current state of GEO legislation and to identify areas for improvement. Additionally, we spoke to the main regulatory agencies of GEOs in the US about their current policies. Through these interactions, it became evident that the fragmentation of GEO regulation, along with the dearth of policy specific to GEO implementation, posed a significant barrier. However, this barrier to implementation can be overcome through design and rigorous testing of new biocontainment devices, in a standardized fashion across regulatory agencies. In response to these discussions, our team generated a sample policy proposal for the testing, application, monitoring, and termination of biocontainment devices in a released GEO.
While the modification and addition of new policy is crucial to improve the safety and ease of GEO implementation, public opinion is of equal or arguably greater importance. Our team worked to foster dialogue about biocontainment as a safeguard against unintended consequences of GEOs in open environments. We planned and conducted a Building with Biology event with Open Bio Labs, a local community synthetic biology laboratory. At this event, we designed our own module and accompanying video to teach children and their parents about the purpose of biocontainment. To further improve public awareness on synthetic biology and biocontainment, we created two videos on these topics. We also spoke to the head of Charlottesville Open Bio Labs and Dr. Todd Kuiken from the Wilson Center to examine the current regulation of community labs. Working with the head of the Open Bio Labs, we created a biosafety guidelines document, including provisions on biocontainment.
Not only did we work to improve awareness of and dialogue about biocontainment in the general public, but we also considered the iGEM community as another target audience. In July, our team facilitated a forum discussion about biocontainment at the University of Maryland’s Mini-Jamboree event. In addition to educating other teams about biocontainment, these conversations allowed us to gauge the current knowledge and concerns of the iGEM community. In response, our team administered a iGEM-wide survey to teams to assess awareness and concerns about biocontainment. The results of this survey and our conversations with scientific and ethical experts informed the creation of a biocontainment pamphlet for the use of future iGEM teams. This pamphlet consolidates several resources and academic papers into educational material and useful toolkits for teams to select, implement, and test a specific method for their projects. We also created a widget that teams can utilize to determine the best biocontainment method for their project, depending on their specific concerns and implementation goals.
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