Ethics and SynBio

Synthetic Biology is a novel area of biology that builds upon the field of biotechnology. However, that does not answer the question what is synthetic biology? A definition upon which everyone can agree has yet to be found but some popular ones include:

  • A new area of biological research that combines science and engineering in order to design and build ("synthesize") novel biological functions and systems or;
  • The design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems and the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes.

Along with the biological and technological problems of synthetic biology, there are also issues of ethics, the environment, legalities, education, and biosafety. The Lethbridge 2009 iGEM team project focuses around microcompartments, nanoparticles and the biobattery and we have though long and hard about the E3LS issues that could arise from a project such as ours. Our long-term goal is to create an efficient and cost effective biological battery. This self-sustaining battery will fix carbon dioxide from the atmosphere when supplied with water and sunlight, thus acting as a carbon negative source to make our biobattery environmentally beneficial. However, first our photosynthetic bacteria must be optimized with microcompartments, which could also be beneficial as a drug delivery system in the future. The third component of our project is the production of nanoparticles of uniform size and shape that can also be used by medical and diagnostic sciences. However, methods to produce such nanoparticles are cost intensive and require extreme conditions to make. However, there is a protein, mms6, from Magnetopirillium magneticum, which is important in controlling the morphology of such particles. Our team will be introducing a novel method for the mass production of uniform nanoparticles that will be environmentally friendly, and much more cost efficient. As you can see the Lethbridge 2009 iGEM team project will be environmentally and economically useful. However, how synthetic biology, and our project, is perceived in our community is extremely important. Will synthetic biology be a profitable, and therefore continuous, field in southern Alberta? This is important for our team to consider.

With the continually advancing field of biotechnology and the emergent industry of synthetic biology there is a growing demand for graduates with a strong science background. However, North America is experiencing a decline in the number of graduates majoring in science. One of the goals of the 2009 Lethbridge iGEM team is to view the trends of science interest and knowledge in Southern Albertan high school students. Although many similar surveys have and are being conducted, ours is geared towards students in our immediate vicinity, Lethbridge and the surrounding area. This is important, as Southern Alberta is a highly conservative area that puts a lot of emphasis on religion and tradition. Thus it should be interesting to see how the up and coming generations of science students feel about synthetic biology.

To assess the interest levels and general attitude that high school students have towards science we have conducted a survey of grade 10 classrooms in three separate Lethbridge high schools. The survey and its results are discussed below.

The Survey


Information gathered from this survey will be used in a university project (iGEM), and to assess the need for increased funding for science activities. The answers you provide on this survey will remain anonymous; individual identity will remain confidential. Your participation is greatly appreciated.

1.Do you think of science as the learning of past discoveries, or the development of new discoveries?

Learning of Past Discoveries Development of New Discoveries

2.Rate your interest in science:

0 1 2 3 4
None Very Low Low High Very High

3.How interested are you in pursuing a scientific career?

0 1 2 3 4
None Very Low Low High Very High

4.Rate your understanding of the term “genetic engineering.”

0 1 2 3 4
Never Heard Of It Before Don’t Know What It Is Know Somewhat Know Mostly What It Is Know Exactly What It Is

5.Do you think genetic engineering to be good or bad?

0 1 2 3 4
Don't Care Very Bad Bad Good Very Good

6.Rate your understanding of the term “synthetic biology.”

0 1 2 3 4
Never Heard Of It Before Don’t Know What It Is Know Somewhat Know Mostly What It Is Know Exactly What It Is

7.Do you think synthetic biology to be good or bad?

0 1 2 3 4
Don't Care Very Bad Bad Good Very Good

8.Which high school science classes do you plan on taking? Circle all that apply.

Biology Chemistry Physics Science Science
20 20 20 20 24
30 30 30 30

9.In your future career, which factor is the most important to you?

Helping Others Making Discoveries Money Independence Fame

10.The majority of learning done in your science classroom is through:

Problem Based Learning Group Work Lecture Assignments Self Directed Learning

11.How would you like to do the majority of learning in the classroom?

Problem Based Learning Group Work Lecture Assignments Self Directed Learning

12.Rate your interest in participating in paid extra-curricular science activities?

0 1 2 3 4
None Very Low Low High Very High

13.What are the first three words you think of when you hear the word “scientist”?

  1. _____________________
  2. _____________________
  3. _____________________

Results and Analysis

Different geographic locations often have vastly different social characteristics and opinions regarding science, religion, and technology. Often science and technology are viewed with scepticism or distrust, which can be attributed to a lack of knowledge about these subjects. In order to ascertain the general knowledge of high school students, the U of L iGEM team surveyed local high school students in grade 9, prior to separation into the divisions of biology, chemistry, and physics, about their knowledge of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. The survey is attached below the results, which are summarized herein. Below (Figure 1), we determined high school students’ knowledge of the broad term “genetic engineering.”

Ethics figure 1.png

These results indicate that students have indeed heard of genetic engineering, a term that has been used for some time, generally have a favourable view. However, some individuals lacked knowledge of the term or what it is, and even those who have some knowledge of the term stated they don’t care, reflecting either apathy or a lack of interest.

As a comparison, we next examined students’ knowledge of the term “synthetic biology” (Figure 2). These results distinctly contrast from the students’ knowledge of genetic engineering. Only 18% of students either never heard of the term or didn’t know what it is, as opposed to over half of students (58%) who either never heard of or didn’t know what synthetic biology is. This isn’t surprising however, as the field of synthetic biology is just emerging. Again, students who have at least some knowledge of synthetic biology generally have a favourable view of it.

Ethics figure 2.png

Since the University of Lethbridge iGEM team is small and Southern Alberta is not particularly populated, we next determined high school students’ interest in science in general, interest in a scientific career, and interest in extracurricular activities in science. This survey serves two purposes: one, to ascertain if students were at all interested in science or a scientific career, and also as a tool for future recruitment to the U of L iGEM team. The results are summarized in Figure 3.

These results are of particular interest to the U of L iGEM team; while the majority of high school students have a general interest in science (71%), only 32% actually have an interest in a scientific career, suggesting students may not view science as a means to earn a living. Indeed Alberta is generally a “primary resource” based economy, with many jobs in Alberta in the primary industry such as agriculture and oilfield based industry. Thus, if Alberta wants to become a leader in biotechnology, this perspective must be changed. This is further reflected by the fact that 54% of high school students interested in science showed a high or very high interest in extracurricular scientific activities such as iGEM. These are the students that must be recruited from outside the university in order to grow the U of L iGEM team.

Ethics figure 3.png


Our project did not raise issues in terms of researcher safety, public safety, or environmental safety, because we used non pathogenic species and parts. Our work is carried out in a level 1 facility, and all of our parts/materials were level 1. We did not create any new, unknown or untested parts, but developed parts based off of existing genes. If our project were to be continued further, and we achieved the usage of a new chassis (Spirulina maxima) biosafety would need to be considered by future teams.

The University of Lethbridge has a Biosafety Comittee, which exists for the purpose of monitoring and controlling biological organisms.

The University of Lethbridge iGEM team uses a space that is approved for level one containment, which is not a problem for our current project. A member of the committee is also on the team, so that we would have a timely response in the case of any issues.

None of our BioBricks pose a safety concern.