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Ethical Discussion

Source: MercatorNet, New Media Foundation © 2013

Looking at the big picture, our goal of producing an efficient biosensor for the optimization of pathogen detection in industrial processes has many potential benefits and detriments to industry and the environment. Our project involved the creation of two different bacterial systems, one of which we simplified into a third for standardization. The initial project was to create what we call a Universal Self Amplifying (USA) biosensor. The idea of which is to use a cheap, effective bacteria to locate a specific pathogenic signal, amplify it to trigger other USA biosensors, and rapidly produce a visible response. For proof of concept we needed a model pathogen to activate our USA biosensor. By combining a variety of gene sequences we developed the BBa_K1090000 BioBrick, an AHL signal producing system with an red florescent protein (RFP) reporter gene, and put this plasmid into E. coli. One of our controls for the biosensor construct is our Universal biosensor (UB). The UB sequence contains all of the USA biosensor genes except for those that confer the AHL signal amplification. Although we did not submit BioBricks for the UB and USA biosensor, both have been completed and tested. We will save the discussion of the results for our “Project” section. Here, we would like to enumerate some of the implications our system could have upon the environment, safety, ethics, and ownership.

Our specific project ideally would remain in the laboratory setting, thus we do not have any mechanisms to limit bacterial growth or reproduction, such as a kill switch. The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in nature has been a concern both societally and scientifically for quite some time. Last year our project dealt with bioremediation using a synthetic tri-bacteria system; for this reason, we included a detailed ethics section regarding synthetic biology in the environment. If you would like to learn more about this, please follow the following link: Even if our project entered into the environment, the synthetic genes occur naturally and produce the quorum sensing chemical N-Acyl Homoserine Lactones (AHL), which would at worst attract specific bacteria to one another. As all of our system’s use will be with samples in a controlled laboratory environment, there is no real environmental threat for our project this year.

The production of a pathogenic biosensor is in itself a positive step towards safety in such things as industrial food production and water purification. Working with pathogens always carries an inherent risk to those in contact with the organism and requires proper techniques to prevent their spread in the laboratory. However, we worked with a non-pathogenic model of E. coli 0157, and integrated a signal (AHL production) into the bacteria to standardize the process. The USA biosensor would ideally serve to increase the safety of industrial processes and product production by providing an inexpensive, rapid, and precise method of detecting specific pathogens. The major effect this system has upon safety is by improving its effectiveness and affordability in industry.

We have already touched on some ethical discussions, especially when talking about the production of GMOs for release into the environment. Let's look at the base ethics of genetic engineering. Is it right to scientifically alter natural organisms? Man evolved to be curious and naturally wants to push the bounds of nature in order to survive and thrive on Earth. The use of tools, fire, and the domestication of plants and animals are all example of man overcoming and adapting nature for his own benefit. To provide a more direct link to synthetic biology, the selective breeding of plants and animals to artificially adapt them to increase their yield or a specific personality/physical characteristic is the manipulation of the genotype based on desired phenotypes. With technological advance, the techniques we use for iGEM and synthetic biology are a modern adaptation to the selective breeding of old but with much more specific targets and a wider range of possible accomplishments. With this perspective, the ethical considerations of synthetic biology and genetic engineering seem to be a natural progress of the human condition.

This project in particular has some very marketable attributes if all systems function the way they are designed to. Thus, the question of ownership comes into play heavily for our team. We had begun work on intellectual property protection measures in hopes of patenting our USA biosensor design, however, we were neither able to complete this process nor the characterization on the USA biosensor. At this time we are still struggling with our decision to patent it, and will likely try to optimize the system before any definite plans are made. However, patenting could have some negative effects upon the open source network that the iGEM foundation has worked so hard to maintain. Scientists should be able to share their information with one another in order to encourage further scientific advance. In today’s society, driven by capitalism and business, scientists must also be able to market their products in order to make an income, allowing them to continue researching. That is a rather simplistic outlook, but it is fundamentally true. This has been our greatest struggle this year and with the continuation of the project, we will either receive a patent, submit it to the open source library, or come up with something in between. Be sure to check in with us next year to see the result.