Team:Newcastle/Integrated Practices

Integrated Human Practices

Human practices have played a very important role throughout the evolution of our experiment. Initially, for the creation of the microbial fuel cell we were planning on using the University of Reading's yeast cells instead of Escherichia coli.

After a conversation with Dr Simon Woods, Co-Director of the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre, we began to understand the ethical implications of using yeast cells. Throughout the evolution of science, we have constantly, with incremental steps, been pushing the boundaries of ethics alongside the use of technology. Depending on who you ask, people have different attitudes towards what is considered to be “right” and “wrong” with regards to how we treat living organisms.

The main conclusion we reached during our conversation with Dr Woods, was that people are uncomfortable with the use of humans and animals in scientific experiments due to their reproducibility. This directly correlated with concerns regarding the complexity of the life-form, and unforeseen complications from experimentation.

Wandering down a hypothetical "spectrum of experimentally ethical organisms”, we encounter humans – animals – yeast – bacteria. Yeast cells possess a nucleus and as such are classified as eukaryotic organisms. Eukaryotes (human, animal, yeast) have a more complex cell structure than their prokaryotic (bacteria) counterparts. However, yeast cells grow and reproduce at a much faster rate than most eukaryotic cells, approximately every 2 hours. There are many different species and strains of yeast which also introduces areas for contamination. Certain strains cause skin irritation and some other strains can be fatal if they are ingested or inhaled. All that is required for a non-lethal strain to become lethal are a range of genetic mutations.

However, the main area of concern regarding yeast is that it is freely accessible to the public. People are conducting synthetic biology experiments in the comfort of their own house. Take for example brewers, who brew beer in their garage. What is to happen if there was a mutation in the specific strain of yeast they used? Imagine that we were no longer in a garage, but are now in a factory? What would happen if the yeast accidentally spilled, or this yeast somehow got transferred into baker’s yeast which was then used in peoples’ houses to bake bread? What are the potential adverse side effects that could arise from this? The main problem with the use of yeast is that: a) It is such a commonly used organism that we sometimes surpass the potential implications that could occur if something was to go wrong and b) the complexity of the life-form.

Biologically, yeast cells are more similar to human cells than bacteria are. Therefore we need to take into account the effect of its fast reproducibility and how prone offspring are to inherit any present mutations through a germline-like modification. The effects would affect not only the “offspring” of the yeast but also all succeeding generations.

In contrast to yeast, bacterial cells are further down this line of experimental specimens. Bacterial cells are prokaryotes and are simpler compared to yeast cells. Bacteria also replicate faster than yeast cells, with a replication time between of 20-60 minutes. All cells from bacteria develop from a single cell of origin and are therefore essentially clones of the original cell. Also, the molecular control of the bacterial cell cycles is well regulated.

In addition to the fore-mentioned, if we look at a timeline of organisms that we considered to be ethically, we are moving backwards. We have been using animals since the 1800s, but started using humans around the 1960s. In 2005 however NYC announced that they are no longer using humans in their experiments. In 2014 there was an uproar from PETA with the use of animals in experimentation. Consequently, if we are moving backward on this line, bacteria are still the most ethical organisms to use for experiments.

After this conversation, we therefore decided that the use of bacterial cells was more ethical than the use of yeast cells in our project.

When engaging people with our human practices thought experiment one of the issues that came up repeatedly was that bacteria, such as E. coli and other microorganisms are not afforded the same status, in terms of our duty of care to them, as other animals. Wether that be philosophical arguments against eating meat or conducting scientific research on animals. This is odd, since as we point out, at a bacterial scale we are killing thousands of organisms everyday. In further discussion we established that people's attitudes to bacteria are similar to that of plants. We then highlighted that even for plants we still have some responsibilities, for example preventing deforestation and so on. It was observed that these responsibilities are different from the caring role we are supposed to have towards other animals and tend to be more environmental responsibilities. Thus, we were lead to consider the environmental impact of our work.

Because our system is intended for lab use, at the end of its life it will be sterilised and then discarded. Spurred on by the above discussion we investigated the various disposal methods for the components of our system. Our PDMS chambers can not be recycled, and so would have to be sent to landfill. As PDMS degrades in soil, is non-toxic and does not bioaccumulate in sediment-dwelling organisms, this is an acceptable disposal method. The remaining components of our kit are ABS plastic or glass and are recyclable provided the PDMS is removed. We used this information and process to adapt our designs so that we will now supply information on how to remove the PDMS and associated recycling information alongside our kit.