Biosafety and ethics

When we worked with our project we had to ask ourselves several questions. If we were to complete our goal of making a modified probiotic bacteria, there is still a long way to go for it to be available for the public. There is the problem of laws and regulations, especially in the EU. Also, would it be risk free to drink a genetically modified probiotic? Our yoghurt would also have a high risk of spreading in nature, how will we handle this matter?

To answer these questions, we talked to different experts and also hosted a debate on our SynBioDay. A great deal of what is written here are theories and what we as a team have discussed among ourselves and with other people who have knowledge in the field. The fields of synthetic biology and GMO have long been debated, and there are many different opinions. In addition we have talked to politicians to get a better view of where we stand here in Sweden today and what they think about the potential of our product.

Here we have a list of the possible risks and challanges to consider for our yoghurt product to be commercially available

Problem 1

First, we have the laws and regulations in EU. Today, considering this, our genetically modified yoghurt would not be allowed on the market.

What we have done:

Is this because of ideological views within politics? Can it be because the politicians are missing vital knowledge in this topic that they are unable to make decisions about the future? We have talked to politicians regarding this matter and asked them about their thoughts on the subject. Interview with politician.

Problem 2

What happens if our genetically modified probiotic spread in nature, as this would probably be the case with our modified bacteria.

What we have done:

The first thing we did was to discuss this in our project group. Would it actually pose a threat if one of our probiotic bacterium leaked out into nature? One of the main fears we have come across, for example when talking to politicians, is the risk of GMO spreading and altering our ecosystem. Is this fear justified?

First, we talked to different experts on this subject. This problem was then also discussed in our biosafety debate. Many of the experts we talked to reasoned - is it really that dangerous if we let out modified organisms in nature? For example, in our project we are using only genes that produce healthy nutrients that pose no risk in their normal form whatsoever. Second, many of the people we talked to argued that our bacteria would not survive in nature. The reason for this is because the molecules that our bacteria are producing have no benefits for the bacteria themselves. It is, if anything, a burden for a bacterium to have to produce anything additional to what it normally does. This means that they will only get outcompeted by their natural counterparts. A modified organism is for example cattle, they cannot survive and compete outside their optimal living space.

We also debated early on using killswitch systems for our bacteria. In the end we decided that we did not want to use this. A killswitch system is a system that can eliminate the risk of bacteria spreading in nature by making it unable to survive without certain conditions. But then one can ask, is a killswitch system maybe just a false safety? In our work about risks we saw a consensus in why there are so many against GMO, and one of the biggest reason is because we can not be sure that they will not spread. Can we be absolutly sure if we devolop a killswitchssytem that this will not happen? What happens if we get mutations, and one bacterium without a killswitch survives?

Further, to see if our modified bacteria would survive in a lab enviroment, competing against an unmodified bacteria, we did some simple experiments to see what would happen. After just a few days we saw that our modified bacteria was outcompeted by the natural bacteria. Competition test.

Problem 3

Is there a risk for our own health?

What we have done:

Maybe the toughest question for us to answer. This is, together with problem 2, one of the biggest questions concerning synthetic organisms and GMO. Our product have to be treated the same way as food supplements and medicine are tested. The genes we incorporate are all producing natural, non-toxic substances so theoretically our produced metabolites should already exist in our natural diet. The biggest risk here is the unknown; we do not know exactly how a GMO could affect our health.