Dr. Brian Ellis

From 2011.igem.org

Team: British Columbia - 2011.igem.org

Interview with Dr. Brian Ellis

Professor, UBC Botany, Land and Food Systems (Plant Science) (Dr. Ellis' Bio)

1. Do you think synthetic organisms should be released into the wild?

Because of the release of unlabelled GMO products there is a stigma attached to GMOs. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with GMO but the public is not sure who to believe because the government hadn't encouraged labelling from the start. It looks suspicious to the public.

2. What standards would you recommend for their release?

There would need to be careful tests for the effects on environment and health. It is difficult to find a mechanism for testing long term health effects and without labelling, it is impossible to trace. There is the question of lateral gene transfer. This potential problem is always on people’s minds. If people are willing to accept risk, they can put it out but they can’t take it back. The question is how much risk can we take?

This is difficult because the environment is not always pristine. Heavily modified GMO crops have led to a change in the landscape associated with a shift in agriculture. Furthermore, transgenic yeast might auto-compete wild stock and change the ecological balance. Is it catastrophe? I believe nature is more flexible. Species go extinct each year. But we need to consider if we are moving towards a good end or bad end?

3. What challenges are there in terms of attaining public acceptance?

Openness. Perspective change. I myself do not believe GMOs are so dangerous anymore but I think kids and grandkids are more paranoid. There needs to be a discussion of biotechnology. A willingness to accept the unknown. Risk-benefit analysis. For instance, can modern cell phones cause cancer? I love my iphone but there needs to be public decision making power and encouragement to help the public participate. An example is with Mansanto anti-aphid potatoes which went very open to the public. MacDonald’s faced public rejection and the marketplace was pressured to force the GMO out of the market. Also, there is not a guarantee but still best strategy that media likes news-worthy stories. This means that the more alarming and seemingly exaggerating benefits may cause the media to do what they want. What would they do with first source information?

4. What future directions do you see for synthetic biology?

Enormous potential. New organs, limbs and far more specialized medical diagnostics and treatments but bring more questions. Whose cells? Foreign DNA? Self-perception? Cyborg? A lot of things will change but only when they are accepted. Perhaps people will accept changes if it benefits them directly.

5. Do you think we should be rewriting the code of life?

I don’t think life is a static code. We’re just making another version. No sample is the same. Code of life is organic. But, public perceives life as static and don’t want it to change. We need to engage the public on the real issues.