Team:TU Eindhoven/Policy Practices/Human Outreach

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Human Outreach: SynBio Symposium

General overview

To approach an ever broader public we participated in the organization of a symposium about synthetic biology and its role in society, together with the RIVM and the Rathenau Institute. RIVM is the national institute involved in regulation of safety and environment. The Rathenau Institute is involved in the consideration of technological advancements and their use in society. Both institutes regularly experience the clash that occurs when technical novelties are presented to a poorly informed public. The symposium was organized with the idea to promote dialogue between society and technological researches. Thereby the goal was not only to inform the audience about the existence of synthetic biology, but also to present them to the risks and benefits. In this symposium several people form the main regulatory institutes in the Netherlands were invited. Not only employees from the RIVM and Rathenau Institute were present. But also people working at ministries and people working for private or governmental research institutes.


For the organization of the symposium our team and the three other iGEM-teams of the Netherlands had regular meet-ups with Korienke Smit (working for the RIVM) and Virgil Rerimassie (working as legal expert for the Rathenau Institute). In the meet-ups we discussed the program of the day. The first half of the program was filled with some orators from the RIVM, Rathenau and TU Delft. The second half of the program gave us space to present our ideas. In the meetings we presented our projects to one and another and discussed what the best ways are to give a conveying message. Hereby it was very useful to get feedback from people who are not involved in our project directly.

Let the symposium begin

The day of the symposium Jack Pronk, from the TU Delft, gave an extensive lecture about the developments in the field of synthetic biology. In his lecture he gave simple and understandable examples to indicate the progress that can be made with the use of modified organisms, such as insulin production. Bart Wesselink from the RIVM continued to discuss the developments in synthetic biology, by which he mentioned algae producing oil and proteins. Next, Dirk Stemerding, from the Rathenau Institute, scrutinized what different faces of the discussion about synthetic biology are. Finally one of the companies suffering the consequences of the controversial attitude of society towards synthetic biology, Ecover, presented their experiences. As a closure, and to introduce the audience to actual developments and present them topics that raise concern in the young generation, each of the iGEM-teams presented their projects. Thereby we also proposed the possible applications of our device. The presentation was followed by a discussion about societal problems that play a role when considering synthetic biology.
Afterwards there was space for people to discuss our projects and ask questions about it. Thereby people could give their feedback about the different application scenarios. Multiple people were enthusiastic about the use of our device in pesticide-secretion. Some of them highlighted economic advantages and stimulated us to make a calculation of the costs now and expected costs using our system. A couple of people had substantive questions. Thereby they wondered how we could make our device for detection of intestinal diseases specific and why we chose for the use of 2 separate components. We have involved the advices and critiques from the experts into our project, which really helped us to bring the COMBs to a higher level.

A report of this day can be seen here Special thanks to the RIVM and the Rathenau Institute for involving us in the organization and to Loesje Pratijken for making pictures.

Human Outreach: Wisdom of the Crowd

General overview

With respect to wisdom of the crowds we organized an evening in which people from different branches of society gathered to talk about synthetic biology in general and the application of synthetic biology in our project. The opinion and input from people not that closely involved in synthetic biology is important for researchers within this field of science. The evening started with drink and of course a presentation. We began with a broad introduction about DNA and the process of DNA, mRNA and finally the translation of proteins. After this brief introduction, we continued with telling the crowd about the science of synthetic biology and what the possibilities are when modifying DNA. Building on this information, we introduced the enthousiastic group to our project, COMBs. We explained that we created a bacteria with one extra protein that made the bacteria capable of detecting any molecule in its environment. Subsequently the future perspectives on how the bacteria could be used for several societal purposes were adressed.
After some time to process all this information, the crowd was divided into three smaller groups to discuss different application scenarios. Each of these scenarios was based on one of the applications described by the TU Eindhoven 2015 team. We asked the people to give their opinion and input about the use of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) under the given circumstances of the application. We also challenged them to come up with different ways to overcome problems that could occur and for possible interventions that could be done to reduce the risks of using GMOs in the given scenarios.
We found that the opinions were divided when it came to the use of GMOs.

Discussing GMOs in the human body

The group considering the case where GMOs were used inside the human body was quite open minded about this specific idea. Nevertheless, several people emphasized that the bacteria should have a crucial role in treatment rather than detection alone if it is to be prescribed to a patient. It was opted that at least the advantages of using the GMO should outweigh the disadvantages. If a patient is in a bad condition and the use of the GMO could help in treating the disease/reducing pain, it could be accepted. However, they considered it unnecessarily risky to use GMOs solely for diagnosis.
In general, most people were not opposed to the idea of using living organisms in treatment and said that certain conditions should be met. First of all the device should be significantly tested and pass all the imposed examinations for all diagnostic methods. If necessary a kill-switch should be added. If these requirements are met, they would trust the opinion of the doctor subscribing them this specific therapy. Considering these requirements, the reference to the use of E-numbers and bacteria in food was easily made and discussed afterwards. After an interesting conversation about the application, they would leave the decision making to the patient whether or not to make use of GMOs.

Discussing GMOs to prevent the overuse of pesticides

The subgroup considering a case where GMOs were used to treat a disease on plants were more reluctant to the use of GMOs. Most of them were frightened by the step towards usage of genetically modified organisms outside the lab. Thereby they emphasized that they would be afraid that our device would be transformed into something potentially harmful. Considering this, the usage of GMOs outside the lab was less favourable than to use of GMOs inside the human body.
First of all they commented that, if our device is to be applied in the way we proposed, we would still make use of pesticides, which are not the most impeccable substances either. Therefore they would rather see a different solution to this problem. Also they stressed that the benefits of using the GMOs should outweigh the risk. For example; they value human lives more than money or comfort. The general idea behind their arguments was based on the fact that you should not use something, if you don’t know the consequences. And since the usage of GMOs in the environment could possibly affect all, also the people who are opposed to the utilization, they reject this idea. They would rather see a scenario where everyone can decide for themselves if they will get in touch with GMOs or not.

Discussing GMOs to detect diseases in cattle

Our final group studied the case of using GMOs to detect diseases in cattle. One could state that this group was most open-minded towards the application of GMOs. They even went beyond the idea of using GMOs for detection/treatment and stated that one could as well genetically enhance the cattle itself if we knew the causes of these diseases. Thereby they expressed that according to them it is the most important that there is transparency from the designer towards the public. But also there should be an open-mindedness of the audience towards the ideas of the designer.
The group did encounter some complications in the use of the bacteria as we proposed it. First of all they stated that the bacteria should be made harmless after usage. Therefore they proposed heating the mixture to a high temperature to kill bacteria.
Secondly, if the device is to be used by farmers themselves, this would mean that we would have to trust their judgement. Maybe, if it could bring great economic problems to the farmer, he or she might hide the presence of a certain infection. In that case it would be useful if some external authority judged the results from a test. Furthermore they explored our idea by thinking about the development of a chip that could be put inside an animal to constantly monitor the presence of certain diseases.

Discussing the rol of synthetic biology in society

After the discussions in smaller groups, we opened a general discussion about the use of synthetic biology in society. Thereby we asked them what they would think is necessary to bridge the gap between the researcher and the society. One of the solutions that was opted, further explored the concept of transparency. People proposed to make schooling of the public (and government) better on one side, and suggested to make explanation and openness better at the end of the researcher. Thereby they saw a critical role for the media. They supported eduction via the use of newspapers and renown television shows in the Netherlands such as 'De Wereld Draait Door'.
Another conclusion was that it makes a big difference how the device is presented to the public. They stated that the term “genetical enhancement” sounds much less repelling than “genetical manipulation”. Also the focus may be shifted from only risks to a more general view that also emphasizes the benefits of using genetically engineered organisms. The researcher should make the consumer feel safe to use a product. This could, for example, be done through extensive testing and the addition of a safety system.
Thereby they affirmed that the debate about this topic should be kept going. We should not force anybody to accept the use of GMOs, but people should also not hinder development in this area because they don’t like it. Either side should respect each other’s opinion.

Human Outreach: Approaching the future generation

Debating ethics and synthetic biology with future biomedical engineering students

To approach the next generation of chemical biologists, we presented about iGEM on the matchings-days of the Technical University Eindhoven (TU/e). Therefore we prepared a talk about first of all synthetic biology, but also about what the iGEM-competition encompasses. We presented several projects that have been done in the iGEM-competition the last couple of years (Groningen 2012, Münich 2013 and Wageningen 2014). Also we introduced them to last year’s project of the TU/e and described to them how we will take this project as a starting point for our own project.
Ethics forms an important aspect of our project and therefore we encouraged the students to take part in a discussion about the use of GMOs in the human body. Therefore we posed them several questions, for example: ‘Should it be possible to tamper life, with the help of synthetic biology?’, ‘Would you like to have a GMO in your body, if it’s for a good purpose?’ and ‘Would you mind if a GMO gets into the environment?’. The students had to respond to these questions with red of green cards. After every question we asked if they could argue their choice and discussed these arguments with each other.
The days were successful and it was nice to hear the ideas and arguments from future students.