One of the three pillars of our Human Practices is Awareness, where we aimed to both gauge awareness and generate more awareness about biocontainment. Since iGEM teams each year produce hundreds of synthetic biology products, often with the hope of deploying their product in the environment, we were particularly curious to know about awareness of biocontainment within iGEM teams. We surveyed iGEM teams and received 81 responses from 51 different teams. Teams that participated in the survey were given a Collaboration Badge to place on their Wiki. A copy of the survey can be viewed here.
We discovered that over ⅓ of the respondents have never heard of biocontainment (Figure 1). Additionally, only 18.5% of participants reported they are currently using biocontainment in their project, while 53.1% of the respondents hadn’t even considered using biocontainment in their projects (Figure 2). The most common reason participants cited for not using biocontainment is they have never even heard of biocontainment, and the second most popular reason cited is a lack of concern about biocontainment (Figure 3). These data indicate general knowledge about biocontainment and its importance is low amongst iGEM teams and efforts should be put into raising awareness about biocontainment and safety in these research teams. Additionally, when analyses were conducted on the responses, it was noted that different members from the same team gave different answers to the question of whether or not biocontainment is being used in their project. This may be the result of a deficiency in team communication or further evidence of an incomplete understanding of biocontainment.
For the respondents that are currently using biocontainment in their projects, ⅓ reported they are using traditional kill switches (Figure 4), which tend to be inadequate in ensuring safety due to the evolutionary pressure they place on the system, resulting in a high escapee propagation rate. When asked if there were any difficulties in finding a suitable biocontainment system for the project, ⅓ of the teams reported they had trouble and cited the primary reason as not enough information about biocontainment online. ⅓ of the teams also had trouble implementing the biocontainment system due to the system not working, unclear instructions for using the system, and incompatibility of the system with the selected chassis. More accessible information about biocontainment is clearly necessary to facilitate the use of biocontainment in iGEM projects and ensure safe practices.
While over one-third of respondents hadn’t heard of biocontainment, there was no significant differences between regions (Asia, Europe, Latin America, and US/Canada) in response to this question. However, very few respondents had what was deemed to be a comprehensive understanding of biocontainment, which was defined as mentioning the control by intrinsic cellular components. The majority of teams had a basic understanding, which was defined as mentioning anything related to physical containment. In assessing the relevance of biocontainment to their projects, over half of respondents had not considered its use. When asked to rate the importance of various qualities of biocontainment methods from 1 to 5, most qualities were ranked as fairly important (3-4), with translatability being the least important and effectiveness being the most important.
To combat this lack of awareness in biocontainment, we created a pamphlet of information about biocontainment and the ethics of biocontainment that iGEM teams can refer to in the future for designing safer projects. Since iGEM teams are also limited by time in creating their projects, the pamphlet also serves as a quick source of information to save iGEM teams time when considering biocontainment. We asked the survey participants what information about biocontainment and biocontainment ethics would be most helpful to them and used this information to cater the pamphlet to iGEM teams’ needs.
In the survey, we also asked iGEM teams which qualities of a biocontainment system they are most concerned about when selecting a suitable system for their project. The effectiveness of the biocontainment system is the biggest concern among teams, followed by the metabolic burden of the system on the organism and ease of maintaining the contained organism in the environment. Other concerns are ease and cost of implementation of the biocontainment system, the ability to use the biocontainment system in various environments, and cost of maintaining the organism in the environment. Translatability of the biocontainment system between different organisms was the least concerning quality for participants. We used these concerns and create a flowchart and an online tool for iGEM teams to follow to find a suitable biocontainment methods for their project.
In summary, the survey was very informative in highlighting the lack of awareness about biocontainment in iGEM teams. We tackled this problem by creating a biocontainment pamphlet that future iGEM teams can reference when developing their projects. We also created a flowchart and online tool to make it easier for iGEM teams to select a biocontainment method suitable for their project. We hope these tools will make biocontainment information more accessible more accessible and therefore increase the use of biocontainment in future iGEM projects. We would like to thank all the teams that collaborated with us by participating in our survey: