Human Practices (Silver)

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Summary of our Silver Human Practices Outputs


When considering reasons for the lack of uptake of biosensors, we chose to investigate one of the most fundamental aspects for the success of any project: communication. Communication also affects how synthetic biology and the many projects emerging from the field are received. Because of this, many of our human practices and education and public engagement activities are centred around sharing the research and activities we have completed in relation to science communication.

Our human practices work has focused on addressing technology uptake, which is one of the challenges that we identified to biosensor development and deployment. This took place in three main stages. First, we determined the current state of dialogue by consulting previous dialogue studies and reviewing how language is used in the media. We then generated our own guidelines to help future researchers to develop dialogue in a constructive way. Finally, we put this into practice by creating activities and sharing our work in a way that established a dialogue and encouraged discussion.

Attending the N8 Crop and Agriculture Innovation Conference made us aware of the barriers which must be overcome to increase uptake of biosensors (find out more about N8 on our gold human practices page). Alongside other factors which we have identified and tackled through experimental and design adaptation, communication between scientists and the public is an aspect which we have considered in our aim of addressing uptake of biosensors and synthetic biology.

In our work, we used different perspectives and methods to investigate science communication. By gaining advice from academics working in the humanities and social sciences, and completing our own engagement and research, we have taken a journey through science communication and considered how this can help the success of our project.

Science Communication

The main output detailing our research into Science Communication can be found here. This report describes findings from investigating how synthetic biology is currently communicated to the public.

Synthetic Biology Communication Guidelines

As a culmination of our research into science communication, we have complied a set of guidelines for communicating synthetic biology to the public. These guidelines can be used for different purposes, including: to advise scientists when communicating about their work to the press; to guide in how to present to the public; and to help iGEM teams writing up their work!

The guidelines start with some more general points to consider when you start to communicate synthetic biology. They also make use of the information we gained during the science communication research to suggest some more specific linguistic features to consider when communicating synthetic biology.

Read the guidlines here: Breaking down the barriers: How should we communicate SynBio to the public?


As well as tackling legislative issues affecting biosensors, which were brought up by Dr Chris French (read more about this on our gold human practices page), by creating an optimised cell free system in the lab, we also looked at the process of getting authorisation for the use of GMO in the environment, here in the UK. We contacted the Advisory Committee for Release into the Environment (ACRE), as all GMO approvals go through this committee, to inquire about the process we would need to take to get a GMO-based biosensor approved for use. We spoke to Ivy Wellman, who works for the committee as part of Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), and she was able to shed light on the situation with the following email:

“Hi Declan  

No worries, and thanks for confirming your position. I thought that it might be useful to pen something to you for your future reference so here’s what’s required for an application to deliberately release (DR) a (non-plant) GMO into the environment. The relevant legislation governing DRs is EU Directive 2001/18 and domestic legislation as follows: Environmental Protection Act 1990, Section 111 and 112 and the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) Regulations 2002.  

In general, the introduction of GMOs into the environment should be carried out according to the “step by step” principle. This means that work with the GMO should begin under containment first (i.e., under laboratory conditions) in order for the researchers to demonstrate that the organism behaves as expected. The containment measures can then be reduced and the scale of release increased gradually, step by step, but only if evaluation of the earlier steps in terms of protection of human health and the environment indicates that the next step can be taken. It is the HSE who regulate the contained use of GMOs.  

An application for the deliberate release of a GMO would come to Defra. All documentation submitted should be as a ‘word’ document and should not contain any confidential information as we are required to publish the information on  You may want to look at previous applications (for plants and non-plants) here:  

All potential trial sites should be included in the application; it is better to include a site that is not used rather than issue a variation to include a site that was omitted. If citing references, the applicant should provide either a copy of the paper, or a link to it, and be mindful of copyright as it forms part of the application form which is published on the internet. The public are always invited to make representation on any risks of damage being caused to the environment by the release. The independent Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) is an independent panel of experts providing advice to Government. ACRE will consider the application and also any scientific evidence from the representation. Defra is responsible for notifying the European Commission and placing information on a (statutory) UK public register.   

An applicant must inform various Authorities of a trial application and is required to place an advertisement in a national newspaper within 10 days of the application being acknowledged. Defra is grateful to know whether there might be any additional pro-active media around a trial application a few weeks before it takes place. There is a fee of £5,000 per application. The Minister will issue a letter with his decision within 90 days of the application being acknowledged and this will also be published on Gov.UK. The 90 days may be extended if we need to ask the applicant for additional data. If that happens we will ‘stop the clock’ while you gather the additional evidence, and re-start the clock when the information is submitted. The day on which the application is acknowledged by Defra counts as day 1 for the application.   

The DR of GMOs for trial purposes is already a national competence, with the UK making its own decisions independent of the EU. Further, decisions to DR GMO are a devolved matter so if an applicant wanted to conduct a trial in England, the application would be made to Defra. However, if the trial is to take place in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, it would those Governments who would make the decision, with applications having been made directly to them. ACRE advises the whole of the UK.  

I hope that you find this information helpful,

To draw comparison across the globe we also looked at legislation surrounding GMO release in the US. We were directed to this Government website to find the relevant information. US regulation of GMOs focuses on the nature of the products, rather than the process in which they are produced, so the extent to which there are restrictions on releases of GMOs into the environment depends on the GMO. There are no comprehensive legislation specifically addressing GMOs – they are regulated under the general statutory authority of environmental, health and safety laws. The Executive Office of the President, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) published a policy statement in 1986 called the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology which set the basic approach for regulation of GMOs in the US.

Three main agencies are involved in regulating GMOs – US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In some cases, federal agencies are required to prepare Environmental Assessments (EAs) of federal actions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to determine if the environment will be significantly impacted. If it will, then the agency must prepare a detailed evaluation called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). GMO approvals may require an EA or an EIS in some circumstances.


To ensure that our design was safe and good for the world we considered the following safety aspects.


The chassis, which we chose, are all non-pathogenic and were selected within the design stage to minimise the risk, these were all strains of E. coli.

E. coli

The strains of E. coli we used are DH5-α and BL21-DE3, these strains are within safety group 1, like most E. coli strains these present the lowest level of risk to humans. Research commissioned by HSE (Chart et al. (2000)) showed that these lack the pathogenic mechanisms usually present within hazardous E. coli strains.


From the perspective of safety, aspects of our project were advantageous due to their cell free factor. Within cell-free systems, random mutations and dissemination are not as likely. This utilizes cell extract for transcription and translation. Sonification and centrifugation steps remove the cell membrane. This makes them suitable for use outside of the lab, however in line with Newcastle and iGEM’s ‘Do Not Release’ policies, this was not carried out.


As we produced an arsenic biosensor, to characterise this biosensor arsenic is needed. In order to use arsenic, specific safety forms needed to be filled out within the lab, these COSHH forms detailed the use and possible hazards involved. For this, we had to assess the health risks and precautions, and provide the appropriate protection with reduced exposure. Our lab has appropriate ventilation and fume cupboards that can be used. The use of arsenic on the small scale that we needed was allowed within our labs. Arsenic is a groundwater contaminant of major significance to public health. Arsenic can also get into the body via ingestion and absorption, for this reason it is not used as a fine dust as it can be breathed in, which can cause serious health hazards. The health hazards related to arsenic range from irritation to internal bleeding for short term exposure. As arsenic was only used for characterisation, longer term effects did not need to be considered. The risk to team members working with this in the lab is set to as low, as 'reasonably practicable', as it is with every hazardous compound.


Sarcosine Oxidase was used to transform glyphosate into formaldehyde so that existing biosensors can be used to sense formaldehyde, and therefore also sense this glyphosate. The concentrations produced when characterising BBa_K2205003 were detected at a minimum concentration of 10 mg/L. The testing strips used could detect a maximum value of 200 mg/L, two samples indicated this value and so greater concentrations could be present. These were 20mL cultures tested at 5mL a time. The volumes used were low; sealed tubes were used; the formaldehyde was within solution when testing the part; and all experiments were carried out underneath fume hoods, hence there was no real risk to team members.

North-East Big Bang Fair

In July, we attended the North East Big Bang Fair- a large and exciting science fair. Over 2000 students and teachers attended, and we got the opportunity to talk to everyone about synthetic biology, iGEM, and our project! We had a few different activities to get the students and teachers involved with synthetic biology.

‘Build your own Biosensor’ is an interactive activity we developed to get the students thinking about synthetic biology independently. Many of the students did not know what a biosensor was, so this was also a good way to introduce the function and purpose of biosensors in an understandable and relatable way. We asked the students to think about what they would like to sense (an input), and how this would be detected (an output). There were lots of fun and creative responses!

We also had many great conversations with both school pupils and teachers, based around 4 main questions that we posed:

  • What is synthetic biology?
  • What do you think synthetic biology can achieve?
  • How does the current curriculum tackle synthetic biology, and how would you change science teaching if you could?
  • How do you engage with science outside of the classroom?

It was great to spread awareness of synthetic biology among the next generation of scientists, and even give teachers ideas for how they could introduce synthetic biology teaching into their lessons.


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