Team:WITS-CSIR SA/Project/Safety


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The South African Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) act regulates all research and development with these organisms to ensure environmental, researcher and public safety. The legislation governs all activities with these microbes including their transport and work in the laboratory by researchers. The GMO Act has three main focuses guarding human, environmental and socioeconomic safety. As the Wits iGEM team, we work hard to ensure that our safety policy is aligned with our country’s GMO Act.

The organism used in this iGEM poject is a strain of E.coli which requires that biosafety level 1 guidelines are adhered to in the laboratory. Regulations of this biosafety level indicate that lab coats and gloves should be worn at all times while working with E. coli. The team implements these rules without exception.

The final machine produced in our project, since it is only responsive to theophylline, atrazine and IPTG will present no harm to any of the team members in the unlikely event that they come into contact with it. For safety measures, care should be taken by the team to ensure no medication administered contains any of the above mentioned substances.

Microbes are not the only dangers presented to our team when working in the laboratory. Some chemicals, such as ethidium bromide pose a risk to the biologists. When working with this chemical, gloves are worn and disposed of immediately after contact. The team also works with atrazine and theophylline (see "Usage of Harmful Substances").

To prevent the public from coming into contact with our genetically modified organisms, all contaminated laboratory materials are disposed of in assigned bins for decontamination. The strict adherence of the team to this policy ensures that the public, and researchers, are protected from the potential pathogenicity of E. coli. Should individuals in the public come into contact with the genetically engineered bacteria, it will pose little, if any, risk since the bacteria contain no harmful genetically engineered parts and are responsive only to substances rarely present in nature. Issues may arise from the chloramphenicol resistance of the bacteria being horizontally transferred to other bacteria in the environment. This said, chloramphenicol is an antibiotic seldom administered to fight bacterial infections and as such, the acquisition of such resistance by a species will not affect the efficiency of antibiotic treatments.

The E. coli strain we use in our laboratory work will not pose any environmental safety risks if it is accidently released. The biobricks which have been transformed into this species will not cause any negative effects to the environment since the biobricks are only responsive to atrazine, IPTG and theophylline which are rarely present in the environment.

A component of our project involves working with harmful substances which are not commonly used in a laboratory setting. We will be using two hazardous chemicals as chemoattractants for our bacteria, to direct chemotaxis – namely atrazine and theophylline.

Although its usage has been banned in the European Union, atrazine remains one of the most widely used herbicides in the rest of the world. An organic compound which is biodegradable through the action of microbes in soil, atrazine is also a suspected oestrogen disruptor and teratogen. Contamination of drinking water with atrazine concentrations above government regulations has previously been linked to birth defects and menstrual problems in the case of human consumption. It may even infer possible carcinogenic effects and lower sperm levels in men.

Theophylline is an antibiotic. It does not impose as many biohazardous risks as atrazine but must still be handled with care and the relevant protection in the lab.

For the purpose of our project, we will be using very low concentrations of both substances, and following the safety regulations stipulated in the Sigma MSDS documents for these chemicals – in terms of storage, handling and disposal. The correct disposal of these substances in crucial in protecting the public from health issues. Face dust masks, gloves, lab coats and safety glasses will be worn at all times when handling these substances.

Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) :


Our machine does not pose any security risks as it does not secrete any harmful substances. The species of bacteria utilized for our project is also biosafety level 1. Should this bacteria be released for malicious intent, it will unlikely cause harm to the public or environment.

Even with lateral gene transfer between bacteria, the only advantage that will be acquired is directional movement towards either atrazine or theophylline and the ability to then fluoresce. It is very unlikely that microorganisms will even come across these two substances in a normal environmental setting. Taking this into account, our parts pose little, if any, risk to public or environmental safety. The vectors used in cloning contain antibiotic resistance which could be transferred between bacteria. This could provide selective advantage to bacteria who obtain these vectors. To prevent bacteria in nature coming into contact with our engineered E. coli, all microbiological waste will be disposed of only after autoclaving.

The main feature of our device ensures the bacteria return to the position of their release. This means, should our system be used, the bacteria will not remain in the environment and will always return to the start. This reduces the hazard of these GMOs in the context of public, researcher and environmental safety.

All of the team members have attended presentations on laboratory safety and use the knowledge learned to ensure correct procedures are followed in the lab. Two of the team members also have first aid training, enabling them to help should an emergency of medical nature occur in the lab.