We found a very useful way of generating more in-depth debates on synthetic biology: small scale events. We experimented with a focused conversation, titled ‘Guiding cell behaviour with light – technology of the future?’ Ten visitors from various backgrounds discussed societal and ethical impacts of light-induced technologies and initiated a debate on how policy for those should be developed. We divided them into stakeholder groups to direct their brainstorming towards more focused goals and used 2 provocative statements to initiate debate about ethical and societal issues between the groups involved. We then used the focused list of issues that should be addressed, when producing our policy plan.
Alex from EatOffTheMenu gets people together to talk about philosophy, the latest dumb thing presidents may have said or fashion. We pitched the idea of trying to get 10 people from different backgrounds more comfortable talking about genetically engineering organisms.
Throughout the dinner, sensitive points were raised, such as the history of using and misusing genetics in and about humans; we talked about safety and what expectations people have from those who choose to engineer organisms or explore new such possibilities and what they think alternatives to what synthetic biology promises are. After introducing the concept of CRISPR-Cas9 system, we discussed whether the government should implement a policy to genetically engineer humans to eradicate diseases, similarly to the implementation of vaccination programmes. Generally, people agreed that at the moment we are not ready to answer such questions definitely and that more interdisciplinary work is needed on the topic.
We encourage future iGEM teams to consider such small scale events, through which people can interact in a more relaxed fashion. Events that would turn into a regular activity can definitely benefit an iGEM project or university, which can get local support from people interested in how synthetic biology develops and how it can impact their communities.
How 17-year olds want to make mules fertile
We facilitated discussion about the consequences of modifying organisms in synthetic biology with adolescents at the UCL Sutton Trust Biosciences Summer School. The session introduced synthetic biology, our biological light switches and their applications. The aim was to have students consider synthetic biology as a system, where changing one component will affect the others.
We started by asking students what their knowledge about the field is and then built upon this. For example, we highlighted the need for interdisciplinary work and then asked why that might be important. We discussed examples of how mathematical modelling can be combined with wet lab experiments and then entrepreneurship.
What worked well was having the students diverge and talk among themselves about given points and then converge back to share everyone’s opinion and then summarise conclusion or take-away points along the way. The most interesting example came in a discussion initiated by a student: ‘We should make mules fertile, as it can benefit agriculture’.
We went through 4 or 5 turns of diverging and converging to cover points such as:
what are the real-life trade-offs of modifying mules in an agricultural context?
if gene drives are used, what unwanted consequences can come along?
how should experimentation happen – behind closed doors or in a transparent manner?
What we hope to have had achieved was to give students a more holistic way of looking at ideas in synthetic biology. We encourage future teams to try and seek communication techniques from other fields that specialize in getting to the heart of problems, such as in management consulting.
Debating safety and ethics in synthetic biology
Together with the Warwick and Westminster iGEM teams, we organised debates at the UK 2017 iGEM Meet-up. Our goal was to see how useful debates can be to consider safety and ethics when developing an iGEM project.
At the start of our project, many ideas and projects were discussed, debated and pondered upon. What perhaps needed some more consideration, was how do we think about the project development in terms of ethical, safety and societal considerations? What directions should be pursued?
To see what a good way to engage in such a thought experiment would be, we organised debates between UK’s iGEM teams on synthetic biology matters. Topics ranged from whether synthetic biology should be merged with AI, to whether there should be a limit on what can be genetically engineered, to who should own the intellectual property of scientific developments.