Answers to the safety questions
Would the materials used in your project and/or your final product pose:
- a. Risks to the safety and health of team members or others in the lab?
- Our project is part of a Level 1 biosafety lab, meaning that our work involves the lowest level of risk. The E. coli strains we use are harmless and are used world-round with no health risks associated. Both for the experiment's own success and for the safety of others, all bacterial manipulations (cell cultures, glycerol stocks, mini-preps) that involve exposing bacteria to the air of the lab require the use of a Bunsen burner. Moreover, disposing of all bacteria is a two-step process. First, one must bleach the receptacle containing the bacteria (fill its contents with bleach) under the fume hood. The bleached mixture is then poured into a special canister which is treated separately. Second, all cell pellets or dry receptacles containing or having contained cells must be placed in a special biowaste bag, clearly labelled for that specific use. This bag is then disposed of, every week, by a special team from the Life Sciences building. These precautions, coupled with the usual wearing of nitrile and latex gloves at all times, are adequate to the task of maintaining the safety and health of our iGEM team.
- b. Risks to the safety and health of the general public if released by design or accident?
- There is no known risk to the public if these bacteria are ever released into the public.
- c. Risks to environmental quality if released by design or accident?
- No known environmental damages have ever been attributed to the innocuous strains used in our lab.
- d. Risks to security through malicious misuse by individuals, groups or states?
- As mentioned earlier, there are no risks to security involved in the misuse of these bacteria by any entity.
Under what biosafety provisions will / do you operate?
- a. Does your institution have its own biosafety rules and if so what are they? Provide a link to them online if possible.
- The EPFL Safety Committee has put together specific protocols to follow with regards to biological and genetic work that are available on their website. These rules are followed by all EPFL labs including the two labs that organize the iGEM experience. These are standard rules covering both the ethics and methodology of all biological protocols. Clicking on the hyperlink will redirect you to the appropriate website listing out all of these rules in detail.
- b. Does your institution have an Institutional Biosafety Committee or equivalent group? If yes, have you discussed your project with them? Describe any concerns or changes that were made based on this review.
- The EPFL does have an institutional safety committee, but not specific biosafety committee. We have been in touch with Stéphane Karlen, the biosciences representative to the institutional safety committee. The modus operandi, as far as project reviews are concerned, is to bring in an expert from the safety committee if toxic chemicals or potentially dangerous organisms are being used by a lab. Since this is not our case, we have not had to present a project review.
- c. Will / did you receive any biosafety and/or lab training before beginning your project? If so, describe this training.
- We did not receive any specific biosafety training prior to working in the lab. However, whenever a new piece of equipment is introduced or a new protocol is created, we are all briefed on the safety concerns involved in its use. In particular, three of our lab members have received training from the CMI at the EPFL to be able to use the clean rooms for microfluidic chip fabrication. The website for clean room safety is here. More specifically, the training involves the use and wear of clean room gear (eyewear, body-suits, etc...) as well as the proper disposal of toxic chemicals involved in photolithography.
- d. Does your country have national biosafety regulations or guidelines? If so, provide a link to them online if possible.
- Switzerland signed the Cartagena Protocol for Biosafety in 2000, and it was first enforced in 2005. For more information on the Swiss role in the Cartagena protocol, click here.
Interview with Dr. Stéphane Karlen, Biosafety Coordinator at the EPFL
Is there a Biosafety Committee at the EPFL and if so, how does it work, say, in the case a new laboratory opens?
There is a biosafety coordinator for the whole EPFL campus. The coordinator, who happens to be me, oversees a new domain at the EPFL, similar to the DIT for technological infrastructure, called the DSPS which is short for Domaine Sécurité, Prévention, et Santé. This domain was added last month to the EPFL governing structure and has networks in each group. The Biosafety Officer in this case plays two important roles for the DSPS: he or she does the work of the biosafety coordinator and also manages security.
Going back to your question about the protocol for new labs, I should mention that there are some new rules on how this works. First, there is a list of legal obligations which requires, among other things, that all lab directors or principal investigators announce any work involving genetically-modified organisms (GMO) or infections. Second, on top of EPFL's own investigations of lab work, the Fonds National -- Switzerland's main scientific funding agency -- does not release funding money until these notifications about GMOs and infections are made. Finally, the EPFL Biosafety group visits all the labs that are at a level 2 of risk or higher and checks in regularly on their safety measures.
Is there any biosafety training available at the EPFL and is it a requirement for working in a lab?
There is a monthly biosafety course that brings out a good number of bachelors, masters, and doctoral students. However, it has not been made a mandatory requirement for working in a lab. That being said, we divide all the labs at the EPFL into four categories of risk. Level 1 represents the lowest level of risk, meaning that no healthy average human can be harmed in this lab and only a very specific set of individuals with special conditions can be injured (a specific allergy for example). And then there's Level 4 that represents an extremely high level of risk (working on the Ebola virus for example). The EPFL mostly has level 1 and level 2 labs. Anything involving normal E. coli is a level 1 biosafety risk. To give you some idea, you run the same risks of infection in a Level 1 workplace as you do in your own kitchen or at a pharmacy.
Does Switzerland impose any particular laws on biosafety?
There are two main federal laws that govern most biosafety regulations at the local level. One is "La Loi sur les Zoonoses" which translates as "The Law on Animal Infection" and the other is "La Loi sur le génie génétique" which translates as "The Law of Genetic Engineering". At the more local level, two ordinances play a major rule in sculpting our own protocols: one is the "Ordonnance sur l'utilisation confinée" (OUC) which defines the boundaries for genetic work, and the second is the "Ordonnance sur la protection des travailleurs, collaborateurs exposés contre les risques liés aux microorganismes" (OUM). The latter is more directly relevant to the work done at the EPFL. Finally, there is a local directive -- which does not have the force of law -- that tells us how to run our risk analysis for the labs at the EPFL.