Human Practices: Silver
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 areas were integrated in to our project here.
- Conversations with academics in the field of synthetic biology and biotechnology, including Dr Lucy Eland and Professor Angharad Gatehouse.
- An interview with Dr Simon Woods, Co-director of the Policy, Ethics and Life Science (PEALS) Research Centre at Newcastle University.
- Engagement with a group of pre-university students (17/18 years old) to discuss their perception of the ethical issues and the design of the breadboard.
- Started social media interaction on Facebook and Twitter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.