Team:BGU Israel/Problem


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”Engineering microbial strains to make industrially useful biochemicals from renewable feedstocks: ’This technology holds pretty good promise for making a substantial impact on the world’” [1]

”How scientists are engineering DNA that may one day eliminate malaria, solve the energy crisis and feed the world[2]

”With hopes to offer new therapeutic treatments for disease and new energy sources in the form of biofuels, the field of synthetic biology could have a huge impact in the fields of medicine and technology”[3]

”Synthetic life promises ’magical future’: Say goodbye to global warming, toxic waste, and dependency on fossil fuels, and get ready to enjoy perfect health with exotic drugs that could one day cure most diseases and extend lifespan indefinitely” [4]

Global warming, famine, cancer, the energy crisis: from a quick look in the popular press, it seems that for every enormous problem, there’s a microbial solution. Synthetic biology offers innovative contributions to a wide range of fields, from energy, health, medicine, the environment, and more.
However, note the common denominator between all of the articles quoted above: ”hope”, ”promise”, ”may one day”, ”in the works”. Hundreds of biologically engineered systems have been developed, but for now, progress has mostly stopped there. The question presents itself:

What is standing in the way of making synthetic biology projects reality?

Of course, there are many factors that complicate the move from a laboratory proof of concept to large-scale, real world applications. However, at this point in time, even if all of the technological hurdles were overcome, most synthetic biology projects are still not ready for wide-scale release, for two main reasons:

1) There are too many risks and unknown consequences.

Releasing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment is problematic: the released population must be robust enough to survive outside of the protective cocoon of laboratory conditions, but not so strong as to pose a threat to the delicate ecosystem. How can we release GMOs with confidence that they only affect their intended task?

2) There is not enough public support.

The general public views innovative genetic and biological research with suspicion, partially because of legitimate concerns about consequences, and partially because of a lack of scientific literacy and understanding. Of course, a lack of public support is generally reflected in government policy, which can severely impede research. How can we foster debate and education in the field of synthetic biology?

We launched a wide survey regarding synthetic biology. The most intriguing answer we got, was to the following question:
"If it were possible to create a control mechanism for engineered bacteria, which would make sure that the bacteria destroyed themselves immediately after the completion of their intended purpose in nature, would the use of bacteria with this mechanism reduce your concerns?"

This answer gave as a clear idea regarding our solution to the public's concerns.

Addressing the issues

As we mentioned, the issues we are dealing with are risks and unknown consequences and the public's concerns. In order to address these isuess we at iGEM_BGU adopted a double-pronged approach:

In order to minimize risks, we are developing a control mechanism to limit the lifetime of GMOs upon release into the environment.

In order to maximize support, we embarked on an extensive campaign to encourage discourse with the general public about synthetic biology.

Continue the journey: read about Our Solution .


[1] Marlow, Jeffrey (2013) ‘Synthetic Biology V 2.0.’ Wired Science Blogs. 9 March. Available online.
[2]Draker, Breanna (2013) ‘Life as We Grow It: The Promises and Perils of Synthetic Biology’. Discover. October. Available online.
[3]Setzer, Michael (2013) ‘Scientists make discovery in field of synthetic biology’. The Tartan. 26 Aug. Available online.
[4]Pelletier, Dick (2013) ‘Synthetic life promises “magical future”’. Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. 10 Sept. Available online.