For Synthetic Biology in particular and scientific projects in general, we believe societal considerations should be upfront. Here we show how we went on and explored safety, responsibility, ethics and scientific relevance of our project. Furthermore, we demonstrate how we integrated gained insights throughout the design and execution of our project.
- “Envirobot” had the aim to develop an eel-like robot with built-in biosensors that can either go on predefined missions or autonomously react to molecule concentrations in water.
- The project was carried out over 4 years with more than 10 collaborators from 5 different research institutes in Switzerland. The material value of the final robot was about 10.000 USD.
- When building the robot, main obstacles were the robustness and speed of conventional biosensors.
- Due to legal regulations and missing contamination in swiss lakes, the robot could not be tested in the field and was therefore trained with modeling data or collected samples.
- In general, biosensors outcompete electronic sensors regarding the number of detectable molecules, thus enabling their use for environmental monitoring.
- Robot parts containing engineered bacteria should be made from non-fragile material to avoid breaking in case of an accident.
- On the robot, bacteria are either operated in standard plastic lab ware or specially 3D-printed parts made from Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, a durable polymer known from Lego bricks.
- Bacteria need to be stopped from escaping from the robot. Mechanically this could be solved by placing a tub, which contains an absorbent or antimicrobial reagent under the robotic platform.
- We designed a 3D-printable double-walled case for all parts on the robot containing bacteria. The case has only one opening for the influx of bubbled medium, where a unidirectional valve can be placed. The compartment between the two walls of the case can be filled with any antimicrobial reagent to ensure the elimination of any bacteria in the unlikely case of a container breakage.
- Before moving the robot outside of the lab, removal of any operated GMOs is required. Especially when bringing our robot to the U.S., we were recommended not to bring any material that was brought in contact with GMOs. For
cleaning, we were recommended to use a strong antiseptic like H2O2 as it causes no damage to the electronics.
- When bringing our robot to the U.S., we are going to replace all parts that were possibly brought in contact with engineered bacteria. All other non-replaceable parts are going to be cleaned with H2O2.
- For our project, we were interested in finding out which components would be interesting to sense but primarily, which ones would be easy to use in a biosafety level one laboratory like ours. We were recommended to work with
non-toxic compounds in a proof of concept manner to minimize any risk to human health and the environment.
- For the experimental part, we worked with the natural aspartate sensing system from E. coli. Our attempts in evolving the Tar receptor were carried out with vanillin, a volatile, non-hazardous food additive and with toluene which was handled with all necessary safety measurements under a fume hood.
- During our meeting, we discussed the issue of dual use research, i. e. the potential risk of misusing the knowledge gained from our project by third parties.
- To address this issue, we participated in the dual use initiative from the iGEM team Bielefeld and organized a presentation where we informed about the potential risks of dual use research. Although dual use can never be excluded, the experiments we demonstrate with our robot do not exhibit a direct potential for being misused.
- In previous mechanical engineering projects at our university, teams were required to develop a safety concept.d
- We voluntarily outlined a safety concept for the manufacturing and operation of our robot and sent it back to the ETH safety department for evaluation.
- Greenpeace does not have a general position against genetic engineering, especially not in the research sector or for medical reasons. In agriculture however, they have a clear position against the use of GMOs as there is more research needed to study the long time effects.
- As long as safety standards are met and bacteria are kept inside the lab, the iGEM competition does not represent a conflict of interest with the principles of Greenpeace.
- For our robot it is equally important that biocontainment is ensured. This can not only be supported by mechanical devices but also by the implementation of biological mechanisms like kill-switches or auxotrophies.
- Already there is some knowledge exchange between Greenpeace and scientists who tend to be rather critical. Philippe encourages researchers to expand this dialogue in order to increase the understanding