Team:British Columbia/Wild


Team: British Columbia -

Initiating a Dialogue on Synthetic Biology in the Open

“What does synthetic biology mean to you?”
“You mean, like, Jurassic Park?”

This was one of our favourite responses when we surveyed hundreds of undergraduate students for their definition of “Synthetic Biology”. When people think of synthetic biology, do they imagine something unnatural, belonging to a different time, a beautiful and marvellous human achievement but dangerous to the world as we know it? Is synthetic biology a futuristic dinosaur that needs to be isolated on an island?

Synthetic biologists have very grand visions of what their creations can do. We want organisms that can clean up oil spills and non‐biodegradable garbage, fix the ozone layer, fertilize barren land and purify contaminated water, synthesize copious amounts of bio‐fuels and other compounds at low cost, valiantly beat down untreatable illnesses, and encode yotta‐bytes of encrypted data. These organisms must not only perform these functions infallibly, but also adhere strictly to bio‐safety and bio‐security restrictions. We want them to do what they are supposed to do and stay where they are supposed to stay.

While these expectations may be realizable in laboratory or industrial settings, it becomes exceedingly difficult to design, model and validate synthetic organisms intended for release into open spaces such as nature or the human environment. So our questions are

(1) Will synthetic organisms ever be released into the open?

(2) What extent of pre‐emptive measures is required before this can happen?

(3) Does everyone need to agree? Investors, consumers, environmentalists, governments, communities, educators, scientists, churches and the marginalized? The informed and the uninformed?

Our short discourse "Synthetic Biology in the Open: Pipe dream or the next giant leap for mankind?" can be downloaded or found on this CommunityBricks page.

Expert Opinions on Synthetic Biology Gone Wild

To grasp the attitudes toward releasing synthetic biology in the wild, we contacted and interviewed experts in various fields. Here are the 5 core questions we asked:

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

2. What standards would you recommend for their release?

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

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

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

Interview Transcripts

Dr. Allan Carroll Associate Professor, UBC Department of Forest Sciences, Insect ecologist

Dr. Julian Davies Distinguished Professor Emeritus, UBC Microbiology and Immunology department

Dr. Andre Marziali Director of Engineering Physics, Associate Professor, Biophysics Associate, UBC, MSL, GenomeBC Technology Development Platform Director

Dr. William Mohn Professor, UBC Department of Microbiology & Immunology

Dr. Andrew Riseman Associate Professor, Applied Biology and Plant Breeding

Dr. Hennie J. J. van Vuuren Professor and Eagles Chair in Food Biotechnology, Wine Research Centre Director, Associate Member, Michael Smith Laboratories

Dr. Jon Nakane Engineering Physics Lab Manager and coordinator for the undergraduate robotics course (PHYS 253) at the University of British Columbia.

Dr. J.P. Heale Associate Director of the University-Industry Liaison Office (UILO) at The University of British Columbia.

Dr. Brian Ellis Dr. Ellis a professor of Botany; Land and Food Systems (Plant Science) at The University of British Columbia.

Take-home Messages

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

"Yes, but in a very qualified and careful way. In this era of increasing population and global change, we must be increasingly innovative in the way we obtain and utilize our ecological services. Synthetic organisms are one way BUT past attempts to manipulate nature by introduction of organisms has often resulted in massive failure." - Dr. Allan Carroll

"It needs to be on a case-by-case basis. The first line of critique is whether there are novel traits or a novel combination of traits introduced." - Dr. Andrew Riseman

"Yes, if they have been well studied and if they don’t compete with other organisms in nature and don’t have negative affects on the ecosystem." - Dr. Hennie J. J. van Vuuren

"My first impression is to be extraordinarily careful. Releasing something with an evolutionary advantage runs the risk of perturbing the system in a big way" - Dr. Andre Marziali

"Unintended consequences are always something to keep in the back of your head." - Dr. Jon Nakane

"There are many positive aspects in controlling the pine beetle infestation, but one must consider the potential risk of releasing large amounts of a synthetic yeast into the wild." - Dr. J.P. Heale

2. What standards would you recommend for their release?

"Don't even contemplate the release of synthetic organisms until we have a sufficient understanding of the ecosystem consequences on all scales; spatial and temporal, from the molecular level to the landscape level." - Dr. Allan Carroll

"It is important that the government takes responsibility or contracts a third party to screen the release of synthetic organisms rather than leaving it to companies to self-regulate." - Dr. Andrew Riseman

"There needs to be extensive write-ups to be clear about what was created and how it works. It needs to be stated clearly what the problem is, what approach will be taken, and what tests will be performed to ensure quality control." - Dr. Hennie J. J. van Vuuren

"You could engineer susceptibility into the organism, but you'd have to study closely how well that would work and if it could evolve around it." - Dr. Andre Marziali

"Perhaps the team can try their yeast on a small piece of land; however, then there is still the fear that the product can jump outside of it." - Dr. Jon Nakane

"Can the lifespan of the yeast be controlled? For example, some plants are engineered to be sterile so they can’t propagate. Some bacteria can be modified to have suicide genes that can be triggered through a variety of mechanisms." - Dr. J.P. Heale

"There would need to be careful tests for the effects on environment and health." - Dr. Brian Ellis

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

"Education of the public is more than the science and should encompass the social aspects. Anyone who tries to do science in the absence of social aspects will run into a brick wall. In my career, I have spoken to non-science audiences and it is important to translate the science, putting it into a context of understanding issues important to people." - Dr. Allan Carroll

"There must be clear unequivocal benefits to the public with no other alternative solutions." - Dr. Andrew Riseman

"Some people are against it in principle. It is still controversial but it could be really beneficial to consumers and the environment and then people will accept it." - Dr. Hennie J. J. van Vuuren

"We largely need to get the public involved early in the process. You can't go very far down the road and then expect that you're going to educate the public." - Dr. Andre Marziali

"In age and time where Western world wants to hear the word natural and organic, they might be adverse to making changes to making them better." - Dr. Jon Nakane

"Education is the best means of addressing these issues" - Dr. J.P. Heale

"The challenge is with the level of openness. Perspectives can change." - Dr. Brian Ellis

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

"The highest priority is to address the negative impacts of invasive species and minimize the impact of man on the environment since we rely so much on our natural environment." - Dr. Allan Carroll

"It is viable in closed systems so that there is no exposure to the environment. Again, there should be clear benefits that justify the need for synthetic biology." - Dr. Andrew Riseman

"We have the technology for creating and analysing synthetic biology. There is a huge future if the consumers can benefit from it. Consumers are easy to please especially if there are health benefits and if it is well studied and controlled. Again, open communication is key." - Dr. Hennie J. J. van Vuuren

"You can’t know if you were helpful or not for a long time" - Dr. Jon Nakane

"The cutting edge approach developed by iGEM could be used to develop other organisms for pest control in crops." - Dr. J.P. Heale

"Enormous potential." - Dr. Brian Ellis

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

"Genetic engineering is important for us in this era of increasing population and global changes. Should we rewrite the code of life? I wish we didn't have to, but circumstances may dictate it. Again, it should be done carefully. " - Dr. Allan Carroll

"Yes, but not necessarily to make synthetic organisms for release into the environment. It is a good tool to understand natural organisms and life. " - Dr. Andrew Riseman

"It is natural for cells to mutate. However, we have the technology to introduce very accurate modifications and selection for what we want. Bringing in foreign DNA is in a sense rewriting the code of life. Nonetheless, if there are benefits, it is worthwhile. " - Dr. Hennie J. J. van Vuuren

"I think there will be uses of synthetic biology that are confined enough and there could be human clinical applications that would be quite useful. But our understanding of complex networks is minimal and I don't know if we'll improve a whole lot ." - Dr. Andre Marziali

"But in biology, it seems like a greater potential for things to have a much larger effect years afterwards. So, testing should always be done." - Dr. Jon Nakane

"Taken to the extreme of genetically modifying humans there are obvious ethical issue that would require significant debate." - Dr. J.P. Heale

"I don’t think life is a static code. We’re just making another version. The code of life is organic." - Dr. Brian Ellis