As detailed on our background page, the main focus of our project is protecting photosynthetic organisms against rising UV Radiation. We came up with three main specific applications: protecting wild cyanobacteria at the poles, shielding plants (mainly crops), and creating resistant cyanobacteria for the use of biofuels. Each of these uses brought its own set of questions that we tried to answer over the summer:
- How do you get approval, nationally and internationally, for a genetically modified organism?
- Is it possible to release a genetically modified organism into the wild?
- Are each of these applications feasible and important?
At the very beginning of the summer, we spoke to Dr. Himadri Pakrasi, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who studies photosynthetic processes in Cyanobacteria. At this point, our project only included three of the four genes: Dsup, phrAT, and uvsE. Our project also focused on our first application, protecting polar cyanobacteria. He pointed out first of all that testing our genes only against natural E. Coli defenses would not be very effective. This was because photosynthetic organisms exist naturally in light, and so have evolved much stronger UV radiation resistance.
He pointed out however, that just because they are naturally resistant did not mean that the systems were perfect, and any increase in protection would be useful. He suggested to us to use a control to account for cyanobacterial resistance. To accomplish this, we added the gene phrAC to our list, and decided to try to transform and test our genes in cyanobacteria. He also suggested that we look into genetically modified plants, since there is a much larger infrastructure for that kind of genetic modification.
Later in the summer, we visited the St. Louis facilities of Monsanto and Pfizer. We were able to see closely the use of genetic engineering in industry, for agricultural and pharmaceutical purposes. After the tour at Monsanto, we were fortunate to have a group of scientists listen to our project and give advice. Our original project design used GFP as a reporter gene, to indicate whether the gene was being transcribed. However, one of the scientists pointed out that GFP also absorbs in the UV range, which would probably make our results suspect. After this, we switched our reporter gene to a blue chromoprotein that had been characterized by a previous iGEM team, which would not absorb in the UV range. Also one of the other scientists suggested that we look into the use of cyanobacteria for biofuels. One of the scientists, Dr. Larry Gilbertson, offered to connect us with Austin Burns from their legal team and also to come talk to us himself about the process of genetically engineering plants.
The Legality of it All
A little bit later, we had a phone interview with Austin Burns to ask him about what the next steps could be if we were able to successfully transform our genes into cyanobacteria. Specifically, we were wondering what channels we would have to go through to safely start testing UV-B radiation in the wild. Mr. Burns did not have a specific answer for us, and he explained that that was because there is no precedent for releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment on such a large scale like the ocean, which has sections that many countries control. So each country would need to agree, based on international treaties and so many other agreements.
He also walked us through how we might be able to go about testing in controlled environments. First, we would have to answer questions about the organism itself. Where did it come from and how did we obtain it? The USDA can regulate what they want in the environment and will bar certain organisms if they think there is a risk to endangered species or agriculture. Mr. Burns also suggested that we build failsafes into our constructs so that if something were to go wrong, there is a way for the organism to shut itself down, since most organizations would be more willing to work with the organism if they knew there was a backup if something went wrong. In addition, we might need to get permission from the EPA because of the clean air and clean water act which overlaps with the endangered species act of the USDA.
Mr. Burns continued to talk about how we would go about testing in the environment, but his main point that he repeated was that there is no specific avenue to achieve what we wanted to with our genes. He walked us through the process of hypothetically getting a meeting with the USDA or EPA, and things we would need in order to prepare; the main thing being a huge amount of data, specifically data showing the positive effects of the organism, a benefits document, and data that specifically shows that it would do little to no harm in the ecological environment it is in. Mr. Burns also gave us sample questions we would have to answer before moving forward with environmental testing and meeting with a governmental agency. Some of the questions are listed below:
- If our organisms die, could the DNA get taken up by other organisms?
- Could our DNA help other organisms that are harmful to fish or people or the ocean itself?
- Are we going to try and profit or is this free?