"Collaboration leads to a better and more accepted technology"
Consultation with both university specialists and beekeepers has pointed out the main cause of the Colony Collapse Disorder: Varroa destructor. Our collaboration with the Design Academy Eindhoven has led to a design of our final application, and in collaboration with Synenergene and Resource Wageningen we created a magazine of the future where we illustrated the techno-moral consequences of our technology. Two small research reports have been composed within Wageningen UR courses: an ethics report exploring the moral boundaries of do it yourself (DIY) synthetic biology, and a team building advisory report. Finally, we invited the other Dutch iGEM teams for a national meetup.
We contacted the NBV, Dutch Association for Beekeepers, in order to understand the impact of V. destructor on bees and beekeepers. In addition, Bob Mulder, the communication specialist of Wageningen UR and team adviser, pointed out the following principle: "Don’t change the consumer, change the technology". After several conversations with beekeepers from the NBV and through Bob Mulders advise, it became clear that an improved product must meet the following criteria:
- It should be effective and specific, not killing the bees or have any negative influence on the beekeepers.
- It should be adapted to the hobbyist character of beekeeping, ensuring the viability of E. coli in the sugar water so no changes have to be made in beekeeping practices.
- It should not interfere with honey, like the curent usage of thymol does.
We contacted the Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE) to help us in designing an applicable format for BeeT. After mutual visits, a design student from the DAE – Thieu Custers - proposed a product that incorporated the daily practices of beekeepers and BeeT: A juicebox-like product that beekeepers apply to the sugar water just before the start of the winter.
We initiated contact with students from the Design Academy Eindhoven to enhance the interdisciplinarity of our project. We met up several times and discussed science, society and where those overlap. Their views on our project and synbio in general helped us in designing our project and adapting it to real life demands. For a concrete collaboration, we asked one of the students – Thieu – to design our end product, BeeT, in a way it could be presented to future users. Our collaboration with the DAE did not only lead to us having a positively received final product design, but also led to our project influencing the design students’ projects. One of the students gave us the opportunity to have a “real life bee experience”. The aim of this project was to study group dynamics, stress, and teamwork. The task was to prepare a dish (Baklava) like bees would do it. Leif Czakai made a movie out of this.
Synenergene is a four year program to promote the dialogue about the future of synthetic biology between relevant stakeholders, contributing to responsible research and innovation. Synenergene partners, including the Rathenau institute, are in close collaboration with several iGEM teams from all over the world.
Our collaboration with Synenergene consisted of two assessments: an application scenario and a techno-moral vignette. The assessments were intended to help us evaluate the viability as well as the societal impact of our envisioned product. We chose to write a “Resource from the future” for our techno-moral vignette. “Resource” is the magazine and news website of students and employees of Wageningen UR. By writing a Resource from the year 2030, when BeeT will be available on the market, we aimed to bring up ethical issues around synthetic biology in a way that is fun and accessible to the public. Some of these issues are highlighted in the interviews with the general public we included in the magazine. At the same time, the magazine served to spread the word in Wageningen about our iGEM project. Additionally, we wrote an application scenario. This scenario explores how European legislation could affect future BeeT usage.
In the Netherlands, the RIVM (Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu) is a governmental institute that is concerned with public health and a safe living environment. They investigate the impact of synthetic biology on these aspects of our society, and aim to bring existing knowledge on the topic together. Part of their work is encouraging discussions about the development of synthetic biology from a policymaker’s perspective, which includes a collaboration with all Dutch iGEM teams since 2014.
In short, we learned a lot from collaborating both with the RIVM and the Rathenau institute/Synenergene. The RIVM and Synenergene assignments helped us to think more in depth about different safety aspects, how safety by design can be achieved and our own opinions about it. We gained a new perspective on how biocontainment is perceived.
Throughout the year we have visited a lot of conferences with several goals: to inform different stakeholders about our project, to collect input on the BeeT system through different stages of the project, to network with companies and explore sponsor possibilities, and to have fun and learn some things ourselves.
March: multi-stakeholder dialogue
"The role of synthetic biology in energy transition"
Discussion about the current Dutch energy supply and the potential role of synthetic biology. We created “the green human” futuristic scenario where humans would evolve together with plants to be able to rely on photosynthesis for energy. In our opinion it exposes a very important aspect of both energy transition and synthetic biology: that the public should be involved, to be more conscious about energy use and more engaged with technological advances in the field of synthetic biology.
April: NBV and BioSB
Annual conferences of the Nederlandse Biotechnologie Vereniging (NBV) or Dutch Biotechnology Association and the Bioinformatics and systems biology research school. Our goal: collect input, talk to potential sponsors and have fun.
April: DAE Meetings
As mentioned in the collaboration section, we designed our project with the help of students from the Design Academy Eindhoven. We met with them twice: The first time, we visited them and took part in a design workshop. The second meeting was a lab day for them to see what our everyday life in the lab looks like.
May: National Meetup
We organized the meet-up of all interested Dutch iGEM teams. Four teams took part: Groningen, Leiden, Eindhoven, and us.
June: Synenergene forum
The Rathenau institute organised a conference, for relevant stakeholders regarding the future of synthetic biology, to explore the right conditions for responsible research and innovation.
September: RIVM forum
Concluding our Collaboration with the RIVM, we attended a meeting organized by the RIVM and the Rathenau institute, with the theme: “Veilig verder met synthetische biologie”, or “Making safe progress in synthetic biology”. During this meeting we gave a short presentation about the topic of our project and how we integrated "Safe by design" through toxin specificity, controlled expression of the toxin and confinement of our product to the beehive.
October: Lunch lecture at Wageningen University
The last month before the wiki-freeze we organized a lunch lecture at the university for researchers, beekeepers, students and other interested people to present our project and collect input for the last time.
We have contacted various newspaper and magazines to inform the public about our project. Not only did we tried to reach out to the Wageningen community but also to alumni, beekeepers, scientist from outside Wageningen and people who are interested in synthetic biology. Partly to receive input about or project and partly because we are just very proud about how our project turned out. We also proactively kept people updated with the help of a Social Media campaign.
Resource and Wageningen World
The resource is the magazine for students and employees of Wageningen University. They have dedicated several articles to our work. They focussed on the content of our project but also about our reach out to the public to raise money with a crowdfunding platform.
- June: General article about our project.
- July: article about our crowdfunding.
- July: Blog inspired by our project.
- August: article announcing that we will go to Boston with our project.
- August: article directed at alumni of Wageningen UR with a request to help with crowdfunding.
People were able to leave us messages through the crowdfunding platform. Some of them we translated to English. Thank you for the kind words!
- "As a beekeeper and a retired scientist I consider it important that an organic pesticide is discovered." - Anonymous
- "A worldwide problem for bees, and therefore also for flowers and for people. A small token of support for a group of young scientists!" - Jos
- "Original research to a main cause of CCD deserves support." - Roelf
- "A lot of nonsense is being published on bees. These students try to solve the real problem. The mite is worse than insecticides. Luckily, Dutch bees are doing well now - but this is mainly due to the gentle winters. It can change all of a sudden." - Willem
- "succezzzzz..... bzzzz...." - Animal Veterinarians de Peel
- "Being an Wageningen University and Research alumni, and having worked the larger part of my career fighting international environmental crime as a law enforcement officer, I realize that the enforcement of rules and regulations are only the last resort of the path to a sustainable future. All starts with sound scientifical research into the causes and effects of environmental deterioration. I am happy to be able to contribute to this research project that focuses on one of the most mysterious yet biggest threat to a durable and adequate food chain to provide sustenance to a growing world population and may help the survival of a exemplary species." - Anonymous