Biosafety and Biosecurity
Biosafety and Biosecurity were at the root of our project. Since we plan to use a GMO in a not so confined environment (a natural cave), we carefully investigated the way to minimize, if not prevent, dissemination of our strain. We designed (i) a double toxin/antitoxin system to prevent genetic material dissemination, (ii) a device to securely use our strain and (iii) we used modeling strategies to simulate the behavior of our strain in the cave environment and choose the safest conditions. Besides, we have written an exhaustive description Safety methods and their adaptation to our subject to ensure security, and prevent biodissemination. We also explored the ethical issues of using GMO and their consequences in our project.
From the beginning we knew that the Lascaux cave belongs to the World Heritage of UNESCO since 1979 and therefore that our project might have a strong echo in the society. We understood that the public would feel involved in our project and it was obvious we had to carefully consider all its implications, even more considering the controversies raised by GMOs in France. Actually at our first meeting with the public during this spring, at a time when we had just chosen the topic of our project - preserving the Lascaux caves with modified microorganisms by the means of Synthetic Biology – we felt that the public was concerned, not by the objective itself but by the means to reach it. Interestingly the kind of reactions was age-dependent, the younger persons were rather enthusiastic whereas the older ones were more reserved. It also appeared clearly that there were some misconceptions about the GMOs, a lack of concrete knowledge about what DNA manipulations and Synthetic Biology mean. So from these feedbacks from the public and keeping in mind that the Lascaux cave is part of the Human patrimony, we felt that we had to involve both the scientific community and the general public in the design of our project and that we also needed to explain it in the more general context of GMOs and Synthetic Biology to the public. In order to do so, we talked with scientists in charge of the Lacaux caves as well as with experts in the physiology of fungi and bacteria, with ethics experts, participated in various scientific exhibitions for the public, broadcasted our project in medias, created educative videos translated in different languages and created a theater play, as an innovative mean to educate and trigger debates with the public about the GMOs and synthetic biology.
Scientific community advice
At the beginning of our project, the first step was to get in touch with the scientists and managers who are taking care of the cave. The last information we had about the condition of the cave was from 2011 and we needed to know the current issues regarding the cave. People in charge of the cave were pleased by our initiative and told us that the threats for the frescoes were mainly due to ochroconis and fusarium and that these fungi could grow thanks to the biofilms of the bacteria Pseudomonas fluorescens. Although they agreed that our project was an original way to conserve the frescoes, they were concerned by the initial probiotic design of our project, which aimed to modify the microbiota of the caves. They made us realized that the ecosystem as it is, is important for the integrity of the caves and of the frescoes. Therefore, thanks to their feedback, we have strongly modified our project so that our modified bacterium would stay physically confined, would have a limited lifespan and would have no easy way of exchanging genetic materials with other species. In addition, we realized that we could fight the fungi by two ways, directly attacking them and indirectly by eliminating their nutriments sources, the biofilms of Pseudomas fluorescens. Therefore, we designed an antifungal module as well as a bacteria predation module that would be expressed in B. subtilis, a usual inhabitant of the caves. They also raised the difficult issue of what should be the optimum ratio of Predator (B. subtilis) to prey (fungi or Pseudomonas) in order to get a significant result. That has led us to develop a friendly open source program to simulate the efficiency of killing of the preys depending on the prey/predator ratio. In addition, the last but not the least, they told us that we would be welcome to test our therapeutic agent in their laboratory cave models. This opportunity has led us to think about an iterative strategy: test our modified bacteria, Paleotilis, in an ecosystem similar to that of the Lascaux caves, identify the limits of our design, then back to our bench to improve it and test again in the cave's model and so on.
Ethics issues integration
From the feedback of the public, we felt that we needed to think more about the ethics of our project, for our own good, but also for getting some background that would allow us to discuss more seriously with the public. So, we met Vincent Grégoire-Delory, an ethicist who helped us with the elaboration of our ethical reflection. We have also participated to a workshop on Genetically Modified Microorganism organized by the “Plateforme Génétique & Société” whose guest stars were Pr Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent from Paris, members of ethics committees and Pr. Thierry Magnin from Lyon, Head of the « groupe d’épistémologie et d’éthique des sciences et technologies ». We have also attended a seminar on genome editing given by the Pr. Père Puigdomenech from Barcelona, member of European ethics committees, co-organized by the “Académie des Sciences, Inscriptions et Belles Lettres” of Toulouse. While participating to an exhibition on genetics at the “Museum d’Histoire Naturelle” in Toulouse, we also have had the opportunity to discuss with Dr Anne Cambon-Thomsen, Head of the “Plateforme Génétique & Société” of Toulouse and member of European ethics committees. As you will see in our page dedicated to the topic (see human practice section) we had an intense and productive introspection. Notably, we debated about the necessity of saving art and of using the powerful synthetic biology approache to do so. Besides confirming to us that we have to take efficient precautions to prevent any dissemination of our modified bacterium, several concrete consequences to our whole project have resulted from these discussions.
Creation of a theater play about GMOs
Because we have realized that debates about GMOs in the public were grounded on false perception of what GMOs really are, we have created a fifteen- minutes play which goal was to explain what GMOs are and trigger a debate with the public. This play is taking place in one student's apartment during a party gathering 5 friends. With the pretext of a debate between one opponent to GMOs and one pro-GMOs, we explain what GMOs are, that there are several types, modified plants (GMP), modified animals (GMA) and modified microorganisms (GMM). Therefore, when one raises the issue of GMOs, one should take this distinction into account. We also give various definitions so that the public would realize that legislations and definitions are different between countries and this is a real problem when someone wants to regulate the use of GMOs at the planet scale. We also explained our iGEM project and what synthetic biology is. The play is played by four of us plus one friend. It was created under the complete lead of a PhD student Alexia Dumas, our stage director. Our script evolved thanks to the supervision of Matthieu Pouget, artistic director and teacher at the University of Toulouse 2. We had scheduled to perform live this play notably in front of students of our university, unfortunately, the script was not ready at the time. We hope that we or others will be able to do so in the near futures, because we believe this initiative could really educate public about the GMO issue.
Creation of educative multi-languages videos
As mentioned in the context paragraph, we noticed among the public, specially the youngest ones a lack of concrete knowledge about what DNA manipulations and Synthetic Biology. This is why we have developed an educational kit destined to primary schools and secondary schools. It provides explanations of what biology, life sciences and the concept of DNA are. It contains instructions for simple experiments and provides information on precautions to take when handling GMOs. This was done under the supervision of Arthur Sarrade- Loucheur, a very creative PhD student. We have also filmed and edited explanatory videos about manipulations that we have performed at the bench, so that anyone with the right equipment could understand and carry out these manipulations. In addition, in the exchange spirit of the iGEM network, we have collaborated with different iGEM teams around the world to translate our script in different languages (see collaboration section) and recorded the voiceover in their native tongues. That way, we were able to offer on Youtube a collection of videos in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese.
Communication with public
With the aim of getting some feedbacks on our iGEM project, but also to explain what synthetic biology is about and to promote the Lascaux caves we have communicated about the ins and outs of our project through interviews by local, regional, national, international media, mainly at their own initiatives. These media include newspaper, radio and TV broadcasting.
Direct exchanges with public
Again to both educate the public and to get some feedback, we have actively participated to various scientific events.
- At an event at the Toulouse Museum of Natural History on the topic of Genetics, we have animated a stand on bacterial diversity. We explained how numerous and diverse are microorganisms, their incredible ability to occupy any type of environments, even the most hostile ones. We also explained their importance for life in general and that not all of them are pathogens. We talked about the notion of the intestinal microbiota. We also explained the importance of hand washing by showing Petri plates inoculated with microorganisms from either clean or dirty hands. We have given the opportunity to 4-6- years children to perform basic experiments such as observing various microorganisms through a microscope and for the youngest ones, the opportunity to color a bacteria comic. We also explained them how to make their own growth medium…and discuss all daylong with their parents about our iGEM project.
- At the Toulouse PhD students meeting, we have presented the project ApiColi (from iGEM Toulouse 2015) in order to show the principle and values of the iGEM competition.
- At Toulouse’s Exposciences, we presented a poster on our iGEM project for the first time, exposing what we intended to achieve. The stand was also dedicated to children. Thus, thanks to a model, we explained synthetic biology in easy terms so that everybody could understand. Then, we helped children to extract banana DNA in order to show them an easy and visual manipulation, and also to make the notion of DNA much clearer to them.
- At the European night of sciences in Toulouse, we had a stand dedicated to bacterial diversity and again gave the opportunity to children to make basic experiments such as the purification of banana DNA. This exhibition was coordinated by Thomas Lautier with the help of Stephanie Heux, both researchers at the LISBP, and with two PhD students Arthur Sarrade-Loucheur and Mathieu Fournié.
Website by Team iGEM Toulouse 2016