Panel Debate at the World Schools Debating Championships
On the 21st of August, 2011, the St Andrews iGEM team collaborated with the Dundee iGEM Team and John Urch of Revealing Research Dundee to organise a synthetic biology panel debate at the World Schools Debating Championships in Dundee. The World Schools Debating Championships (WSDC) is a celebrated debating competition between high school students of various cultures and academic backgrounds, which has been taking place annually since 1988. Previous participants of the competition have included Tony Blair.
The concept of running this debate was to form a platform for discussion between future scientists and future world leaders. The students at WSDC are some of the brightest and best from their countries all around the world, so we viewed this as a perfect opportunity to inform them about this up-and-coming area of biology and discuss its implications. This would not only benefit us by receiving an international perspective from young leaders of the future, but would also give them an educated opinion about synthetic biology upon which they could base decisions and future reading in their careers.
Our preliminary idea was to conduct a panel debate which would inform students about synthetic biology and would inspire a healthy discussion concerning the various ethical issues and opinions associated with the subject. St Andrews and Dundee had a few meetings prior to the event where the programme of the presentation and the division of responsibilities were discussed. It was decided that the Dundee iGEM team would talk about the positive aspects of synthetic biology, while the St Andrews iGEM team would discuss the negative aspects of synthetic biology. After the presentation, both iGEM teams and their advisors would form a panel to address questions raised by audience members, in order to encourage independent thought and internal discussion amongst the audience.
The Dundee iGEM team began the discussion by introducing the concept of synthetic biology and discussing their iGEM project. They explained the basic principles of iGEM, the concept of a biobrick, and how it affects the activities of the overall cell. They began their discussion of the benefits of synthetic biology by introducing the role particular biobrick sequences could play in the treatment of disease. Dundee mentioned examples of ongoing scientific projects such as the effect of using various biobricks to synthesize pharmaceuticals treat malaria and diabetes. But the use of biobrick sequences extend further than simply medical applications. Synthetic biology can also help to produce greener fuels, such as bio-alcohol or photosynthetic algae, which are becoming increasingly popular due to the changes in the world’s climate and increasing dependence on fossil fuels. Dundee introduced the idea that synthetic biology could be used in controlling and reducing the spread of oil spills, by creating bacteria that are able to metabolize oil, enabling them to be utilized in the cleanup effort. Novel ideas like this open the door for synthetic biology to play an important role in environmental protection. Other applications of synthetic biology include material production, such as cellular production of fertilizers and pesticides that could help to boost agricultural growth, or chemicals that require non-cost-effective human effort to synthesize. It seemed as though synthetic biology could solve some of the most prominent problems of our time.
Following the Dundee iGEM presentation was the St Andrews iGEM Team, who discussed the negative aspects of synthetic biology. St Andrews chose to highlight three main practical dangers of synthetic biology, including how best to prevent these disasters from occurring in the future.
St Andrews introduced the concept of bio-terrorism within a synthetic biology context. Whilst one of the best things about the synthetic biology community is its largely open-source approach, this also means that anyone with the appropriate equipment and skills (which are widely available) could assemble a virulent strain of bacteria/virus - we highlighted for example the assembly of Polio from mail order oligonucleotides [Cello et al. 2007]. Another practical danger is the prospect of an organism escaping the lab and being released into the surrounding environment. The danger here is two-fold, with the bacteria either colonizing an individual or individuals, potentially causing serious bodily harm and even death, or the bacteria colonizing the environment, causing damage to the environmental niche, or out-competing other natural flora into extinction. The last practical danger is the need for scientists to test synthetic bacteria in an open environment. Whilst some applications such as creation of pharmaceuticals could be done entirely in the laboratory, other projects such as the Arsenic sensor that was produced by another iGEM team would inherently need to be released into the field to realize their application. The fear here is that the potential exists during tests for bacteria to become endemic to the environment, colonizing rapidly and making eradication of the bacteria all but impossible. After colonization, similar problems to the “escape the lab” scenario occur, including environmental damage or infection of animals or humans.
We also introduced the ethical dilemmas faced with respect to the field of synthetic biology, particularly with regard to what moral value should be placed on iGEM. We discussed the idea of the minimum genome project and how this could redefine what we think of as life. We asked whether it was for scientists alone to decide on what constitutes 'life' or whether this is a matter for much wider debate, hence engagement schemes like this one. We also talked about the fears of us 'playing god' by engaging in synthetic biology and the possible ill-effects of humans tampering with complicated biological systems which we do not fully understand. We finished by talking about the concept of a 'dual-use' dilemma being created, and used nuclear fission experiments in the 20th Century as an example of what this means.
While these issues seem worrying, they were introduced alongside how best they could be prevented, in order to show the audience that while there are dangers associated with synthetic biology, the protection of the public at large is paramount in the minds of scientists worldwide. The threat of bio-terrorism is greatly reduced upon the realization of the resources required to synthesize and grow a bacteria or virus are vast, and not easily obtainable. These range from chemicals used to retain the virus’ virulence during storage, to a dispersal mechanism for pathogen release, and finally, serious financial backing and access to a full bio-molecular laboratory. The risk of colonization by released synthetic organisms is not as daunting a fear after the understanding that genetically-engineered microorganisms are usually less evolutionarily fit than their naturally-occurring counterparts. Strict laboratory protocols, transportation procedures, and even cell-level safeguards, such as the kill switch St Andrews iGEM has built, can be utilized to help reduce the chance of widespread colonization.
Overall students' questions were around three major areas: the direct applications of synthetic biology, the impact that releasing a GEM could have on the environment, and how ownership of organisms works.
Within the application area, students were mostly curious about how synthetic biology could be used to treat diseases. Cancer and HIV occupied a prime place in the discussion. Both iGEM teams explained that research in this area is very active, but although some papers have shown some positive outcomes (Ledford, 2011), it is still not clear whether synthetic biology will be the definitive answer to finding any cures in the near future. The teams mentioned that synthetic biology could be used to facilitate specific treatments, as explained in the St Andrews project.
Students then raised several questions on the impact some of these engineered organisms could have on the environment. The questions were aimed at situations where accidental release of the organism could cause a great impact on the environment, or species within that environment, and on the so called Butterfly effect. As there is no correct answer to these kind of questions, the students of both the University of St Andrews and University of Dundee explained that, for the time being, policy is the best way to prevent such issues from arising in the first place. Safety policies were organisms are contained in labs with strict codes of conduct for scientists will be crucial in preventing organism release of any kind, accidental or otherwise. If such organisms are to be test outside the laboratory for any specific purpose, then this would be done under controlled conditions to ensure they are not allowed to escape. The reason explained regarding the use of policies was that it is practically impossible to know how an organism could impact a complex ecosystem. As such, these organisms should only be used under controlled circumstances in contained areas. Finally the university students brought up the fact that genetically engineered organisms are normally weaker and less well-adapted to their ecological niche than wild-type organisms. This decreases their chance of survival, and subsequently decreases their chance of interfering with any population or environment on a grand scale.
The discussion then focused on the ownership of such organisms, specifically if some organisms are eventually synthesized to treat diseases or to be used for helping the community in any way, how patents or laws owning the synthesized DNA would work, and what impact that would have on the field of synthetic biology. This was a difficult topic to discuss as not much legislation exits yet, however it was pointed out that so far several initiatives working on synthetic biology (such as iGEM) use the GNU GPL license for all the research they produce. Anything under the GNU GPL license is free and open; any work derived from it has to remain under the same license guaranteeing that it never becomes propietary. This ensures that the knowledge gained from synthetic biology endeavors remains in the public domain and is used for the benefit of the community without any business barriers.
Below are links to both the St Andrews and Dundee University presentations, available for public viewing:
Ledford, Heidi. "Cell Therapy Fights Leukaemia: Patchwork Receptors Target Immune Cells Against Cancer." Nature News. Published August 2011. Link to paper.