Safety is a major priority for our group. Considering that it was not necessary to use pathogens or many toxic substances in our work, we focused on minimizing risk to both us and those around us. One step we took to ensure safety was using yeast as a model organism. While yeast was mainly chosen for technical reasons described previously, it also was an attractive choice because it is not particularly dangerous to work with. In our work, we also utilized non-pathogenic E. coli, which, being organisms commonly used in laboratories, are safe and well-understood. Waste contaminated with these organisms, whether they were modified by our experiments or not, was placed in a sealed bag and put through an autoclave so that it was sterilized.
Because gene drives are designed to spread throughout a population, care was also taken that modified yeast did not leave the lab. If they were to contaminate other populations of yeast, the genetic changes could change that population in unintended ways. Therefore, gloves were used when working with modified yeast, and disposed of in waste that was subsequently steam-sterilized. This waste did not leave the lab until it was sealed in order to ensure no contamination occurred.
Our work also made extensive use of ethidium bromide (EtBr) to view DNA in our gel electrophoresis experiments. As EtBr is mutagenic, strict precautions were taken when working with it. Namely, gloves were worn at all times when handling it, and those gloves were disposed of in a nearby receptacle, as this limits the chances of contamination. In addition, waste contaminated with EtBr was disposed of in hazardous materials waste, which was clearly marked.
In addition to EtBr, our work with gel electrophoresis involved the use of potentially dangerous UV radiation. To ensure safety, a mask was worn to protect the face and eyes from the UV light. A lab coat was worn to protect exposed skin from the UV radiation as well.
In a broader sense, our experiment itself was focused on biological safety. A gene drive is a powerful tool for modifying an entire wild population with little necessary human interference. As such, it is conceivable that genes could unintentionally spread to other populations, or even other species through horizontal gene transfer, which could be highly undesirable. Our team designed and studied a proposed mechanism for increasing the safety of gene drives, often called a recovery drive. Essentially, a recovery drive is another gene drive that returns a modified population back to wild type. In our experiment, this change back to wild type is phenotypic in nature, as the underlying modified gene is no longer the same as the wild type; it is a nearly identical gene with the same effect, except that it is immune to being changed by the original gene drive. In this way, the organism is rendered immune to the first gene drive, allowing a more complete return to the wild-type phenotype.