Risk assessment plays a very important role in every scientific project, of course also for our iGEM project
. During the first week, we took part in a safety training about good laboratory practice. We further participated at a safety seminar before starting with the lab work. As horizontal gene transfer always represents a certain risk factor, we interviewed different experts to evaluate the safety assessment of our construct. The talks focused on the importance of incorporating deficiencies. After much discussions, we decided which strains are the safest variant for our planned experiment.
Due to our work in the lab, we had one person who was in charge for the safety precaution. Our “safety authorized person” organized a training for all team members including fire drill and evacuation, how to behave in case of an accident and how to render first aid. This safety training was also about good laboratory practice – correct waste disposal and clean and decent laboratory work. To establish a good laboratory practice, everyone had to wear lab coats, safety glasses and gloves. In addition to this lab safety training, we further had a safety seminar where all people who worked at the institute participated. There we got used to all institute related safety questions. Both safety seminars took place before starting with the lab work. The lab work was carried out within the biosafety guidelines established by the Technical University of Graz. Due to our project, we took part at a skype conference about safety organized by the University of Uppsala. Five teams from all over Europe participated at the conference . The discussion was about general safety in the lab as well as the the potential risk of the designed constructs and what might happen, if they are released. One of the questions was if we could anticipate how our GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) would behave, if released. We came to the conclusion that there are no major security vulnerabilities, since we planned our construct according to the iGEM safety guidelines. Aside from the safety precautions for the construct, we only used E. coli lab strains with deficiencies such as BL21 DE3 Gold, XL1-blue, TOP10 or DH5α>. Lab strain deficiencies are a selection disadvantage, like lower fitness or lower survivability. On the other hand, the DNA is beneficial for fitter bacteria if transferred. However, we took arrangements to prevent the uncontrolled release, especially the working steps of our student team members had been carefully examined. Here we paid special attention that all the work was performed with regards to the lab safety regulations. If you are interested in more details, you can check out the video here.
Risk of our Project
For our project we used E. coli BL21 DE3 Gold, XL1-blue, TOP10 and DH5α> strains. These common lab strains provide no risk for the general public. The antibiotic resistances we used were spectinomycin, kanamycin and chloramphenicol. These are common markers that have been used for many years in molecular biology practice and are regarded as safe. Their use in medicine is not relevant anymore, since they have been substituted by more efficient and safe antibiotics with less side effects. Horizontal gene transfer, HGT, could lead to some problems, but that concerns all iGEM teams and synthetic biology projects and is not unique to our work. In our case, we used fluorescence proteins and we cannot imagine a scenario, in which fluorescence proteins help bacteria to survive or provide a selective advantage. Therefore, HGT is not a high risk.
Since we are dealing with a new application, we cannot accurately determine what our project will evolve to in the future. Connecting bacteria to a computer is a completely new way of data exchange, but due to long expression times of fluorescent proteins, it is very unlikely that this interaction might be used for risky actions. There might be many applications, but we cannot imagine a hazardous one. The potential for the misuse of the biobrick database is an inherent problem not only for iGEM, but also for all the DIY biology projects and the biohacker movement. To conclude, all team members and all the people who supported us are aware that the usage of GMOs always implies certain risks for us humans and the environment, but risks can be limited by following the established safety guidelines.