Team:Paris Saclay/ellen interview


Ellen Jorgensen


Our interview :

Team Paris Saclay : You are the co-founder and the president of Genspace (a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting citizen science and access to biotechnology), what are you motivations ?

Ellen : Well, I think everyone who started Genspace had a different motivation. There was an artist who wanted a place, a lab where she could work on art-related biology. There were two students who could not get labspace in their university.They had ideas they wanted to try and they wanted training, and no one was giving them any space, because funding is very tight in the United States and people can’t afford to take on students working on projects not directly related to their grants, [especially] someone who is not trained. A person was a science writer who thought that this was a very interesting trend and he didn’t want to miss what was going on. And I had worked during 25 years in biotechnology and I thought it was great that people who wanted to do [biology] voluntarily, not being told by their schools they had to take this class. People who were really curious about science and wanted to practice it…. If you look to iGEM, the United States very rarely win, the other countries support their teams a lot better. The value of this kind of exercise is important to me, and I wanted to provide a place where people could do synthetic biology biology, genetic engineering or anything like that and not have to convince the university or company to let them have space. And also, I was at a point in my carreer I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to be just a PhD scientist in a lab working on series of projects, I wanted to make a more global impact.

Team Paris Saclay : When we talk about the Open Source, people think about computer science, free software, but not about biology, so for you, what is the bio-open source ?

Ellen : Well, I think biology by its nature is open source, DNA is everywhere, and the only thing that really hasn’t been readily available is facilities and training. And I would also like to see certainly a lot less patenting of genetic engineering products…. The whole biobrick foundation is a very necessary and interesting legal mechanism for making things open source.

Team Paris Saclay : Do you think that people without a scientific education can make and understand biology and synthetic biology ?

Ellen : It happens every day at genspace!

Team Paris Saclay : What are their motivations ?

Ellen :I think that people are curious, curious about the world, they have heard some stuff about this kind of technology and they are interested in it. What surprises me is that a lot of them say it’s good for their career or it has impacted their career to know a little more about this stuff. Now not everyone who takes my classes is going to go on actually do a project in the lab, but a good number of them do. Our work takes a commitment of time. It’s not so much the ability to understand, it’s the time commitment that holds people back. You know we had people without formal training at all, doing genetic engineering, PCR and making constructs. And then we have the general public coming and doing things like DNA bar coding. And that’s people just off the street. We explain what we are doing and walk them through it and they do it

Team Paris Saclay : What do you say to people who are afraid by GMO and think it’s too dangerous ?

Ellen : This technology is very powerful ! Of course there is a dangerous side to it, but then there is side that promises unbelievable benefits. Like any technology, like electricity or nuclear power, you have to handle it properly…You have to steer the exploration in the right direction but to shut it down is not the answer. And in particular with this technology, as I said DNA is already open source, if someone wants to do something related to DNA, he can just extract it from anything around him. So yes, there shouldn’t be completely unbridled experimentation without any oversight at all, but it shouldn’t be completely opposite where you say, well we don’t think that we should even do this technology because we are still evaluating it. That’s ridiculous. We’ve been doing genetic engineering since the 1970’s, so it’s not something completely unknown. Synthetic biology is just making it faster and easier.

Team Paris Saclay : When you work in an academic space, you are very much controlled. Do you follow some rules, laws, do you have constraints as we have in an academic research center?

Ellen : Of course we do, and I think that because there’s so much public attention in DIY labs, in lots of way there are actually safer than university labs. We have a science advisory board that includes the biosafety officer from MIT, Claudia Mickelson, as well as a bunch of other people that have degrees and many years of experience. That’s on top of the two people running it, myself and Oliver [Medvedik] both having PhD in molecular biology … We also have safety training that is mandatory for all members before they set foot in the lab. We dispose of all our chemicals and living organisms the same way a university does. We contract waste companies and package them the way they say, and they dispose of it according to US regulations. I don’t really see that much difference… Having worked in a lot small start-up biotechnology companies in the US, a DIY lab is not that much different. It’s a small lab with not a lot of funding, maybe in an unconventional space. I used to work in a biotech company that was in a hospital building. I don’t really see what all the fuss is about… Another thing is that we all got together and wrote a code of ethics. That’s really more than conventional scientists have done. so there is a code of Ethics in Euope and a code of Ethics in the United States. That was in 2011. It is posted on-line if you want to see it.

Team Paris Saclay : We are building a bacterium that can degrade PCBs, do you think it is a good idea to put GMO in water ?

Ellen : It depends on how you are doing it ! I mean, certainly it’s not a good idea to just release GMO in water system to clean it up… but they use bacteria to clean oil out of … There are certain industrial practices that produce oil and there is water, and there is oil, and they put them in big vats and they’re trying to dispose of it. And before they dispose of it the bacteria eat the oil, they get to the point where they don’t have any more food and they die, and that’s one stage of the purification process of the material before it can be put in a landfill or whatever. So, if you’re going to do something like that, what’s the problem? That’s a lot different than releasing live organisms into the environment. Anything like that has to be monitored. No one, that I know of, is advocating releasing live GMOs into the environment without any testing or studying of what the consequences would be.

Team Paris Saclay :The last question is about bioterrorism. With open source we could find for example the sequences of dangerous viruses on the internet. Do you think we should be afraid of bioterrorism?

Ellen :Well, there‘s always going to be somebody out there that wants to do bad things. There are people that are a lot smarter than I am, namely the United Nations and international community, that have looked at this and have made the decisions to release that information. So I am not going to pretend to be smarter than they are.

Team Paris Saclay :Thank you very much, Ellen.

Our conclusion

Thanks to this interview, we learned more about genspace and about the motivation of people who participate to this movment. People from a large diversity of backgrounds can experiment, can learn more about synBio, and design innovative projects. Experiments are controlled and secured. This is an important difference in comparison with biohakers working in their garage. We think that this reglementation shows a mature reflection about the open source in synthetic biology : everyone can make it, but security is the most important thing. After the interview we discussed about the question of DNA property : what are the consequences of putting personal DNA on the internet, can we modify every DNA or can we talk about DNA property (can DNA or its sequence belong to someone or a company)?

We would like to thanks Ellen for answering to our questions. It was a great moment.