Team:Amsterdam/Human Outreach/Education/Ethics


Lectures on the Ethics of synthetic biology

On of the methods to start up an educated discussion about synthetic biology is by telling the people what the dangers and dilemma’s surrounding synthetic biology are. We have tried this by giving several lectures, at various places, about the field of synthetic biology and the dangers that come with this territory. The lecture has been given at several high schools, at the university and to one of the political youth departments involved in the Rathenau debate. Off course, this has been only a small step and we feel that more steps in this direction need to be made. But we are sure that, by giving this lecture, we have informed part of the public about the dangers and dilemma’s surrounding synthetic biology. We have made the first step towards an educated debate between the society and the scientists.

Ethical Discussion with prof. dr. Tsjalling Swierstra

On the 20th of June we had an ethical discussion with Prof. Dr. Tsjalling Swierstra. We talked about the applications and the consequences of bacteria that could grow on low temperatures. One of the useful applications we’ve discussed was energy reduction in labs or industries. This will be reduced because of lower temperatures that will be used in growth of bacteria. This might be useful for example in the production of bio fuel.
It will also be useful to express the proteins in probiotics. But the actual results of probiotics aren’t scientifically confirmed. And most consumers don’t want to eat genetically modified bacteria.
The synthesized genes can be transfected to plants for growing them whole year long or even growing banana plants in cold regions. But this means the plants will be genetically modified and this has still not been accepted by consumers. Also horizontal crossovers can take place and this can be harmful for other plants.
A very useful application could be adding our idea to other iGEM projects. Multiple projects were aimed at bacteria usage in nature. For example the oil consuming bacteria of the iGEM Delft team of 2010. This won’t grow in sea water because it is to cold. If the chaperon proteins of our project will be added, the bacteria can grow in cold seawater.
Antibiotic production was also discussed as an application. This might give a better yield on low temperatures but still it isn’t that simple to produce antibiotics in an E. coli. From another point of view the growing in cold temperatures can be used as a selection next to different antibiotics. If a plasmid with the synthesized genes will be transformed into bacteria, the strain without the plasmid won’t grow on low temperatures. Just put the flask into a refrigerator and the strain with the plasmid will grow.
After the application discussion we talked about the topic: Process VS Product. The process shows the applications, as shown above. From the product view we’ve looked at the persons that will use it. This shows how people will react to different ideas we’ve came up with. You could think about contamination of nature by the bacteria. Or people that will change their normal live if the product is available.

Ethics discussion with DWARS

On the night preceding this the jamboree in Amsterdam the Rathenau instituut organises, together with the European iGEM Committee 2011, a Meeting of Young Minds, in which political youth organizations from the Netherlands and the iGEM participants will debate the future of synthetic biology. The iGEM teams from the Netherlands have been involved in the project in an earlier stage. More information on this can be found here

Since the political youth organizations do not have the knowledge they need for a good debate, one of the organizations asked us to give an introduction presentation on iGEM, synthetic biology and the ethical side of this scientific field. DWARS, the youth department of GreenLeft, the Dutch Green political party, organized a debate, in the evening of the 29th of August, for their members and invited us to give a presentation in the beginning of the evening.
During the presentation we talked about what synthetic biology is and how it is defined. We introduced the iGEM competition and explained our project. After this theoretical part we discussed the dangers of doing synthetic biological research and to what extend we should worry about these dangers. We broadened this with the ethical issues surrounding the field. We closed our presentation with a small comparison of synthetic biology and genetically modification.
After the presentation followed a discussion with the present members of DWARS. The chairman had prepared a couple of statements that were talked about. These statements included, amongst other, the self regulation by scientists and the scale on which synthetic biology can take place.
In our opinion this evening has been inspirational for both parties. For us it was great to witness the enthusiasm of the political youth about the field of synthetic biology. We believe that the presentation and discussion has helped them in a great deal with the preparations of the debate on the 30th of September.

Systems Biology and Bioinformatics

On the 8th of September we visited the first year students from Systems biology and Bioinformatics. We thought these studies would be a nice way to stir up the discussion on synthetic biology. Most of our team members come from these studies and many of them will be the future scientists in this field. The discussion on synthetic biology should not be held only among the public. Scientists should get a fair chance to intervene in this discussion as well. To allow them this chance we have to properly inform them about the dangers and dilemma’s concerning synthetic biology. A way to do this is by giving a lecture about ethics and the field of synthetic biology and that is exactly what we have done. We believe that the lecture has had the effect we hoped for. The students seemed very interest in the story and asked a couple of excellent questions. Some of the students even wanted to join the Amsterdam team in the competition next year.

High schools

On the 29th of September we will give our presentation at the Sint Bonifatius college in Utrecht. This highschool is famous for it’s excellent science program. The lecture will be given in four different classes in the 5th and 6th grade. The level of the students is pre-university secondary education, which is the highest variant in the secondary educational system of the Netherlands. On the 7th of October we will give our presentation at the Gerrit van der Veen college in Amsterdam. Here, the lecture will be given twice, once in the 5th grade and once in the 6th grade. This is also at the level of pre-university secondary education. We hope to be able to teach the students something about synthetic biology in a way that is also interesting for them.