On our silver medal page, you saw how the principle behind our project led us to investigate certain issues. Now you can see how these topics fed into, and improved our project.
Sustainability: Lee Hibberd
After pinpointing librarians and archivists as our target audience, we got in contact with the National Library of Scotland. We were lucky enough to sit down with Lee Hibberd, the Digital Preservation Officer for the Library. His main role is to preserve access to and maintain valuable digital information. We were pleased to hear how enthusiastic he was with our project! He explained to us how time and energy consuming it is for the library to archive their collection; one copy of the data is stored on a hard drive and one is stored on magnetic tape. The magnetic tape version has to be read, corrected and re-written on new tape every six years! He quoted that this would cost £1,456 and 10 days in 2016, but would take 71 days in 2022 and cost £5,344! He said that in order to ensure our modular DNA storage method is competitive with these costs, we would have to show that our DNA can survive in various conditions and without errors.
Lee also said, that in terms of sustainable storage alternatives, it is more important to find cheaper ways of storing binary code. Though we only picked English text as a proof of concept, Lee remarked that text is relatively cheap and easy to condense and store, whereas binary code is more difficult. Following this advice, we came up with a system for storing segments of binary code in our BabbleBricks. Lee’s advice not only improved the design of our project, it also affected the way in which we presented it to others. No longer were we creating a modular system for storing text in DNA, rather, we were designing a modular system for storing data in DNA!
Safety: Dr Joyce Tait
Following a suggestion from our supervisor, Dr French, we decided to incorporate a stop codon region into the design of our BabbleBricks. Read more about this on our BabbleBrick design page.
Later on in the summer we met with Dr Joyce Tait to learn more about bioethics and policy in synthetic biology. She gave some helpful insights into the public perception of DNA. As some initial reactions we received about our project were focused around safety concerns, we were keen to know what her experience has been with drafting policies related to GMOs. Her take home message was that we shouldn’t assume we know how the ‘public’ feel. She also pointed out that the way in which we phrase our project will influence the reactions that we get from it. She used the concept of ‘gold plating’1 to illustrate this; gold plating is when policy makers include the maximum amount of security measures in their policies, even if this is not necessary. While the policy makers may assume that this puts people at ease, it often gives the impression that there is a need to worry. UK Parliamentary law actually prevents gold plating of EU laws.
Dr Tait recommended that if we believe the BabbleBricks in our project are harmless, and will remain harmless, then we shouldn’t feel the need to stress our stop codon region. Following this meeting we decided to revise the safety measures in our project. Read more about our thought process here.
Additionally, Dr Tait encouraged us to look into laws on cell-free DNA transfer as most laws that she is familiar with are in regards to GMOs rather than DNA. Read more about what we found here.
Ethics: Dr Tristram Riley Smith
After the meeting with Dr Tait, we had a skype call with Dr Tristram Riley-Smith, External Champion to the Research Councils UK Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research (PaCCS) and Director of Research at the University of Cambridge Department of Politics and International Studies. Due to Dr Riley-Smith’s extensive experience in policy making- particularly with linking policy with research, industry and the public, he was able to give us the right resources to reflect on the ethics and overall responsibility of our project. Dr Riley-Smith told us to look into FRIICT and use this as a framework for our responsible research. To see how we did this, click here.
Security: Dr David Aspinall and Dr Kami Vaniea
From the initiation of our project we have wanted to find a secure and reliable way of encrypting our data. As this is an emerging concept, we started the summer by meeting with encryption experts at the University of Edinburgh. Our first meeting was with Dr Aspinall, who recommended we research stream ciphers and devise a way for applying them to our BabbleBricks. Following this, we met with Dr Vaniea. She agreed that using a stream cipher would be effective in our system. She also advised us on key storage and responsible cryptography: we had to make sure we were considering our system’s integrity, availability and confidentiality (CIA). This inspired us to sit down and not only develop our stream cipher method, but also brainstorm scenarios in which encryption would be necessary and ask ourselves; is our encryption method doing its job? To read more about our encryption, click here.
To see the full list of people that contributed to our project, see our Integrated Human Practices Page here.