Human Practices

Human Practices Activities

Collaborations and Discussions with Partners in Industry - Impact of Our Device in the Real World

LanzaTech of Skokie, Illinois

LanzaTech is a company involved in carbon capture to produce pharmaceuticals and biofuels. According to their website, "LanzaTech is revolutionizing the way the world thinks about waste carbon by treating it as an opportunity instead of a liability. LanzaTech’s novel gas-to-liquid technology has opened up vast new sources for making low-carbon chemicals and fuels that displace petroleum without the environmental concerns associated with crop- and land-based bioproducts." We were fortunate to have a discussion with LanzaTech's Chief Scientist, Michael Koepke, on the merits of our 3HP biosensor and whether or not it would have applications in industry. One of our primary concerns was that our 3HP biosensor would not have real-world value because large companies involved in manufacturing materials from bacteria simply use High-Performance Liquid Chromatography to check their batches. After speaking with Dr. Koepke, he confirmed that our 3HP biosensor could have applications in the 'scaling-up' stages, pre-large batch processing, in testing early prototype strains of bacteria. A simple biosensor residing on a plasmid which could easily be inserted into an organism would be a quick method to test strains for LanzaTech's work on 3HP manufacturing.

Thank you to LanzaTech for speaking with us and inviting us to tour their facilities!

Regal Plastics of Des Moines, Iowa

One of our team members, James Cory, contacted Regal Plastics to set up a tour of their manufacturing facility. Regal Plastics is a plastic supply company that sells its plastic products wholesale to a variety of industries. Regal Plastics is not using 3HP produced from microorganisms as one of their methods to create new plastics, but we toured their facilities and spoke with their employees nonetheless because we wanted an intimate look at a larger player in the plastic supply industry. From this partnership, we learned a great deal about the conventional plastic manufacturing process, and devised numerous ways to adapt our own work with renewable bioplastics to improve the process and produce plastic at a competitive price en masse.

Discussion with a University of Iowa ethicist, Lauris C. Kaldjian, MD, PhD

Professor Kaldjian is the Director of the UI Program in Bioethics and Humanities, the Richard M. Caplan Chair in Biomedical Ethics and Medical Humanities, and a Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. We had a brief conversation with Professor Kaldjian on the ethics of our work.

Considerations from the UIOWA iGEM Team

UIOWA iGEM has considered the ethical and practical consequences of our project in the field of synthetic biology. Using the framework of the 2010 Presidential Commision for the Study of Bioethical Issues, five concepts were analyzed by the team throughout the production process of our biosensor. For science to reach its maximum potential, the public must be partners in the science which directly impacts our society. Science must respect the ethical considerations of our nation in order to maintain a positive relationship with the public especially in progressive fields such as synthetic biology.

Public beneficence was the first principle we considered. Data and funding reports for scientific advances especially in the field of synthetic biology should be made available to the public. While the presidential commission focuses on government funded research, our team has taken these suggestions very seriously within our own project. Our project seeks to promote the development of environmentally friendly products, and in order to communicate our desire to improve our world the team has developed an extensive outreach program. Through radio shows and podcasts, trained members of the team have utilized their background in science communication to explain synthetic biology and our project to the audience with a limited use of jargon. Additionally, artwork installations and town hall meetings have been an important part of our project to bring the beauty and utility of science to our wonderful community in Iowa City, Iowa.

The promotion of responsible stewardship is an important consideration that encourages researchers to find a balance between scientific exploration and a careful consideration of ethical implications which may arise from this work. This call for coordinated work which is constantly evaluating its impact has been a major focus of our team. Having built upon the work of Zhout et al. and and Hanko et al., our exploration into the field of synthetic biology has been planted upon the shoulders of other successful researchers in the field. Our current project does not pose a great risk to our environment and community due to the the safe microbes we are utilizing and the contained nature of our project. We attempt to operate our lab in a resourceful manner by limiting the economic and chemical requirements of our work. Through utilizing materials, our efficiency helps to lower our environmental impact on research. Additionally, we are looking to collaborate with partners in research in industry to discuss how our biosensor may help their work while also considering important containment ideas. We are currently seeking counsel from ethicists in order to better appreciate this principle and promote responsible stewardship in our work.

Our lab strives to exemplify the role of intellectual freedom and responsibility by utilizing our creative minds in ethically sound ways. Our faculty advisors have been invaluable in shaping our project without imposing their ideals on our creativity. Our project was inspired by previous work in the study of 3- hydroxypropionic acid, and our enthusiasm to creative a novel and useful biological tool has driven our project. With that being said, we have tempered our expectations with pragmatism and counsel to create an innovative project that is within the range of our collective skillset.Our hope is that the product of our knowledge and excitement will serve the world in creating an environmentally friendly tool to be utilized in the field of manufacturing.

Promoting democratic deliberation is another principle we have centered our project around. Our team works in a cooperative, consensus-based manner in order to listen to everyone’s ideas and move forward on the agreed upon course. By allowing divergent views to be debated, we are able to internally create discussion and creative thinking which carries our project. Externally, cooperation with local government has allowed us to present our ideas in a forum to our community members. These discussion meetings allow for an open dialogue between us as scientists and the general community to ensure democracy is respected in our work. Our hope is to provide tempered public education that demonstrates the utility of synthetic biology without falling into the trap of hyperbole. Through discussion and collaboration within our team and community, our democratic ideals are at the center of each decision we make.

The final consideration is the concept of justice and fairness. We are careful to consider that the population which would be exposed to our product in manufacturing of bioplastics. We would hope that our tool will support bioplastic production to reduce reliance upon petroleum. Another consideration has been the allocation of resources. Financially, we are a crowdfunded team that has received generous support from the University of Iowa Center for Undergraduate Research and the Office of the Vice President of Research. With our funds being generously donated, we are mindful with our research efforts of the costs of running experiments and generating reagents, and the practical assignment of value within our research helps to limit waste. Through reusing spin columns and creating storage for our products, we are able to minimize the unnecessary replication of experiments contributing to a wise utilization of resources.

Specific Ethical Concerns

Will our project isolate specific populations?

Is this the best use of resources?

How will this project support all of humanity?

What do we gain from this project individually?

Will this project further marginalize some groups?

Who will bear the costs of this project in the long term?

Deliberation Questions:

When handling ethical dilemmas, there are 3 different “frameworks” to consider:


What kind of outcomes should I try to produce?

Possible outcomes of our project

- Bioplastic Research

Add a valuable tool (biosensor)

Enhance efficiency of research

- Plastic Industries

Drive towards bioplastics

Drive out of business

- General Public

Change consumer products (could be making things cheaper)

- Environment

Reduce waste (biodegradable plastic)

- Psychological


What are my obligations in this situation, and what should i never do.

Problems we face:

Fossil fuel based plastics will become obsolete (run out of fossil fuels)

Plastic waste is harming the environment (we only have 1 earth)

Our DNA parts are unknown (could have potential value)


What kind of person should I be? (personal motivation behind action)

Our individual motivations behind this project:

Desire to learn

Solve problems listed above

Gain valuable experience for the resume (self profit)