Team:Imperial College London/SafetyConsiderations


Safety Considerations

1.Would any of your project ideas raise safety issues in terms of:

  • researcher safety,
  • public safety, or
  • environmental safety?

1. From the perspective of the researcher, our project has minimal associated risks. We are using the E.coli K-12 strain – a laboratory strain – which is safe to handle and registered as GRAS (generally recognised as safe). The strain poses no direct risk even upon consumption. As always within the lab, good lab practice should always be followed, although there is no reason this should pose a danger.

As The E.ncapsulator is to be ingested, the issues regarding public safety could be debated. Whilst many in the field would argue that the K-12 strain is essentially harmless, counter-arguments could come from fears about ingesting live bacteria. Whilst this is commonplace in probiotic drinks for example, we still thought it necessary to allay people’s fears by including a cell death module in our system. This means that upon ingestion the cells are dead. However, as with any biological system, this will not be 100% effective, and some bacteria will survive the killing mechanism.

Environmental safety is a less critical issue in regards to our project. With many new developments within the field of Synthetic Biology, one great fear held by the public is that of ‘escape’ of a genetically modified organism into the wild, and causing environmental problems. In reality the risks of this happening are minimal. Any scientist who has worked with lab strain bacteria will know the difficulties of getting them to grow even under strictly controlled laboratory conditions, never mind the harsh variable conditions of the outside environment! Still, there is even a very remote possiblity of this happening – but there should be no reason why this genetically modified strain will be any more dangerous than the Escherichia coli encountered naturally. Good laboratory practice will ensure that no bacteria being worked on in the lab will come into contact with the outside environment. Such practices include autoclaving all waste that has come into contact with bacterial cells, virconing all culture flasks, safe and proper disposal of any material that has been used to work with bacterial cells, washing hands before leaving the lab and not transferring anything from the lab to the outside environment.

2. Is there a local biosafety group, committee, or review board at your institution?

2. Imperial has its own Biosafety board, details of which can be found here.

3. What does your local biosafety group think about your project?

3. Our project fulfils all the safety criteria imposed by the Biosafety group. At this time we were not able to get comment on the safety implications of our project in particular by the group.

4.Do any of the new BioBrick parts that you made this year raise any safety issues?

  • If yes, did you document these issues in the Registry?

4.Out of the genes we have submitted to the BioBrick registry, there are very few that could potentially raise safety issues.

Module 1 simply involves engineering the cell to produce a new enzyme, which poses no great risk.

Module 2 genes are those envolved in encapsulation. Although biofilms can be involved in virulence, the genes we are targetting are naturally expressed in many GRAS strains of E.coli. By upregulating these genes we pose no new safety risk. In fact, the upregulation of our encapsulation genes, results in the overexpression of colanic acid which has been shown to inhibit biofilm formation and decrease virulence.

Module 3 involves the killing strategy of the cell by restriction enzymes. Production of these restriction enzymes is an evolutionary tactic used by bacteria as a self defense mechanism against invading phages. These bacteria are naturally found in the gut micro-flora, so there seems no reason why these would cause any safety risk.

During our safety and ethics group discussion, we concluded that the BioBricks used within our project posed no greater risk than those associated with any genetic engineering or synthetic biology project. For this reason we did not detail any special safety considerations on our registry parts.

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