Human Practices: Gold

In order to explore various human practices issues to do with our project, we carried out a number of activities to look at our project from several angles.

These led to a number of changes in our project approach, including:

  • The development of a 'thought experiment' game, to collect feedback about public opinion on the potential uses of bio-electronics.
  • A change in our host chassis, from Saccharomyces cerevisiae to Escherichia coli for our microbial fuel cell.
  • Redesigning features of the breadboard, including the colour and connection method.

Dr Lucy Eland

During our conversation with Dr Eland, she raised concerns about the environmental sustainability of the materials used in the implementation of our designs. Synthetic biology can provide solutions to problems that are inherently unsustainable. We identified that the design of the breadboard and other hardware components/devices (e.g., microfluidics) would require the use of ‘environmentally unfriendly’ materials such as plastics. This influenced our choice to ultimately use polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) in the final design. PDMS degrades in soil, thus reducing the amount of plastic in our design.

Policy, Ethics and Life Science (PEALS) Research Centre

In our conversation with PEALS, two main issues were considered. The first was regarding the choice of host ‘chassis’ organism for our genetic devices. Dr Woods commented that there has been a shift in our perceptions of which organisms are ethical to use in experiments across time. If at the beginning of the last century there were experiments made even on human subjects (and not always with their full consent), nowadays there are stringent regulations regarding experimentation involving humans and animals. Moreover, public opinion is stronger supported by the activist groups (e.g. PETA).

Although we had not expected or considered this as a potential issue, it did make us consider whether this trend was likely to continue in the future. Although we may not consider the ethical rights of yeast to be an issue currently, this was also the same for animal rights at one point, too.

A further issue that Dr Woods mentioned was the possible issues of biocontainment and biosecurity. Considering that one of the envisioned applications of our device was the creation of an educational tool for children, we would want to ensure that our synthetically modified construct is:

  • Non-pathogenic and not capable of having undesirable consequences (e.g. capable of transferring antibiotic resistance), and unlikely to mutate to become so.
  • Ideally contained such that it cannot survive outside of the device it was contained within. This would be an additional safety net, in the event of unforeseen consequences. Furthermore, it could also be built in as an anti-tampering strategy.

We integrated both of Dr Woods' points into our practices by changing the chassis organism of the microbial fuel cell from S. cerevisiae to E. coli. This decision was made because there has been much research done on the design of genetic safeguards in E. coli, such as essential gene regulation (Kong et al. 2008), auxotrophy (also referred to as 'bio-tethering') (Steidler et al. 2003), or inducible toxin switches (Szafranski et al. 1997). Previous generation biocontainment methods are circumventable by horizontal gene transfer or random mutations. A ‘next-generation’ biocontainment method for E. coli is being developed concurrently by Mandell et al. (2015) and Rovner et al. (2015). ‘Next-gen’ biocontainment methods create an additional level of security via generating a dependency upon a synthetic essential amino acid. As the genetically engineered organism (GMO) is unable to transcribe and/or translate the synthetic amino acid, it is fully dependant upon exogenous synthetic amino acids from its growth media.

Cai et al. (2015) proved that it is possible to generate a translational and recombination 'safeguard' mechanism in S. cerevisiae, akin to the generation of ‘next-gen’ methods stated above. While we feel this may be useful for future use in S. cerevisiae projects, it was recognised that the greater knowledge available about the regulation of E. coli responses to environmental conditions would facilitate the design of features such as kill switches (related to the specific conditions in designed components). As devices designed in synthetic biology often work in a specific host context, it was deemed rational to design our devices in the organism most likely to be used in a final deployment of a minimum viable product. Due to anticipated better control of designing kill switch mechanisms, E. coli was deemed to be the most suitable organism.

Related to Dr Woods' first point about temporal shifts in public opinions, he also identified that it would be important for a foundational advance with intended public use to have continual evaluation of the public opinion of issues related to the means (e.g. choice of chassis, methods of GM) and the ends (intended use of the tool). We integrated this into our project by developing a series of thought experiments. We decided to develop our own thought experiment and we are presenting this idea further below.

A recently published editorial in the August 2016 edition of Trends in Biotechnology by Epstein and Vermeire (2016) confirmed the conclusions of our meeting with Dr Woods. Box 3 of the editorial (Epstein and Vermeire, 2016) summarised the six key ‘research recommendations' of three separate Scientific Committees of the European Commission (EC) on SynBio. The fifth ‘research recommendation’ (Box 3; Epstein and Vermeire, 2016) states that funding should be provided to “develop standardised techniques to monitor biocontainment and survival environments outside of bioreactors”. Until a generalised method is developed for biocontainment of specific organisms; using the species with the most researched biocontainment methods is the most logical decision for our breadboard.

Thought Experiment

With the development of bio-electronics, the potential applications that could be integrated with them is also expanding. Dr Woods highlighted, however, that we do need to consider the public opinion to specific applications, rather than the technology itself. Therefore, we developed a thought experiment simulator. The simulator is split into separate scenarios, or ‘levels’. In the current version, each level relates to an application of bio-electronics. These range from a simple light bulb, through to using bacterial wires, and bacteria as a method of data encryption. The purpose of each level is to stimulate the User to consider their attitudes towards novel applications for our technology.

Due to the time constraints on this project, we were not able to utilise this part of our project to gather further data to inform our design. However, we received positive feedback from a range of stakeholders towards the thought experiment simulator, and we would use this as a part of further research into this area. The current implementation of our thought experiment can be found under the thought experiment section. To find older versions see here.

Professor Angharad Gatehouse

During our conversation with Prof Gatehouse, we discussed the legal implications of synthetic biology. It was noted that, while there are no specific rules and regulations that apply to synthetic biology within the European Union (EU), a 2012 report by an EU Working Group noted current GMO directives (2000/608/EC, 2001/18/EC, and 2009/41/EC) are sufficient for this purpose. The EU stance on GM is comparatively much stricter than the US and Asia, resulting in limitations to the potential deployment of our product. In an opinion piece for Forbes, Miller and Kershaw (2012) argue that the EU needs to embrace synthetic biology, with a tailored set of regulations.

Project Discussion with pre-University students

In order to get feedback on the design of our breadboard product, we hosted two sessions to discuss our project idea with 17/18 year old students. As one intended end-user of the breadboard, we were keen to get feedback that we could use to improve the likelihood of a student engaging with the breadboard, as well as experience they had with using the breadboard itself.

Regarding the breadboard design, the students gave two specific pieces of advice that influenced the final breadboard design. Firstly, they disliked the previous method for fixing components to the board, which we then changed and replaced with magnetic fastenings. Furthermore, they were very keen to ensure that designs for any packaging were colourful.

Social Media

In order to interact with fellow iGEM teams and members of the public we decided to create a Facebook and Twitter page at the start of our project. Our Facebook page received 81 likes, while our Twitter feed received 206 followers.