Grand View Farms
As our project deals with alternatives to antibiotics as plasmid maintenance, we wanted to learn how and why others avoid using antibiotics in their industries. According to a 2013 Summary Report by the FDA on antimicrobial use, a large majority of antimicrobials in the us are used in food-producing animals. Because of this we decided to meet directly with farmers who choose to purposely avoid antibiotics. In addition to learning about their rationale for using alternatives, these trips also helped inform us of the potential applications of our work with the Hok-Sok system.
Grand View Farms is a certified organic farm in Maryland that does not administer sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to their animals, uses no pesticides, and grows as few genetically modified crops as possible. As different animals consume different plants, they argued, rotating livestock through the land naturally maintains a healthy nutrient balance while suppressing the growth of harmful weeds. Due to this practice, the farmers at Grand View argued that administering antibiotics was not beneficial, since they naturally received all the nutrients required for good health and from the varied vegetation available for grazing.
Interestingly, the owners of Grand View Farms did not express any particular ethical or health concerns with GMO crops. Instead they informed us that, for a farm of their size, having an organic label made them more profitable and allows them to fill a market niche without directly competing with larger, more industrial scale operations. The allure of organically grown food and organically raised animals is a powerful marketing tool for the farm.
*One a side note, some hungry members of our team sampled the farms ribs, eggs, and vegetables, and according to them, the farms practices have only improved the taste of the food.*
The farmers' willingness to accept GMO crops demonstrated their interest in maintaining an antibiotic free operation. This helped us gain a greater understanding of the applications for our Hok-Sok plasmid maintenance system. If this could be used to maintain plasmids in lieu of antibiotics, then synthetic biology could benefit and partner with organizations like Grand View Farms without compromising the integrity of their ethical positions. Genetically modified bacteria which increase soil quality or the nutrient uptake of animals when ingested are just two examples of how synthetic biology could benefit farms, but the prior necessity of antibiotics prohibited their acceptance at places like Grand View. However, we knew that without antibiotics, plasmids could not be maintained within the cell for very long, leading to a highly variable level of expression. We thus made sure to ensure that our Hok-Sok system could not only maintain plasmids, but also ensure a consistent expression level.
Montgomery County Fair
In mid-August, some members visited the Montgomery County (MoCo) Agricultural Fair in order to survey members of the local community. The MoCo Fair is an annual meeting of farmers, artists, and craftsmen. This celebration included carnival rides, pie cooking contests, and many fascinating demonstrations. As part of our human practices effort, we interviewed the various farmers, students, county executives, etc. about their opinions and concerns about using GMOs. In response to our conversation with Grand View Farm, we wanted to better understand the common misconceptions and ethical limitations that our local community associates with bioengineered consumables. Along with our interviews, we also asked people to fill out a survey concerning their opinions on genetic engineering.
2015 East Coast Regional Meetup
This June we hosted a meetup of several iGEM teams from around the Mid-Atlantic region in order to meet other teams in our area. Our plan was to facilitate interlab connections and collaboration, learn from each others' successes and struggles, and gain valuable insights on synthetic biology.
We were grateful to have representatives from the College of William and Mary, the University of Virginia, Duke University, and Rock Ridge High School come and meet us!
Human Practices Related to Side Projects
Eye Opening Interviews
We visited the Wilmer Eye Institute, a part of Johns Hopkins University, in order to learn about the current conditions of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), its symptoms, and its treatments.
We met with a researcher who studies the causes of AMD, Dr. Noriko Esumi. She currently studies the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) and how it relates to AMD. After giving her an explanation of what iGEM is and why we were choosing to study lutein production, she told us that, while her experience with lutein itself was limited, she was well informed about retinal health and some of the causes of macular degeneration.
From our conversation, we learned that age-related macular degeneration can be attributed to a few factors: smoking, immune responses based on bacterial infections, genetics, and, as its name suggests, aging. She also supported the notion that lutein is an effective vitamin supplement to help maintain and improve ocular health.
Our next interview was with Dr. Nosheen Ahmed. While Dr. Esumi had more experience with the tissue cells that cause AMD when dysfunctional, Dr. Ahmed had more experience with the disease itself, its symptoms, its common treatments, how it affects the lives of patients, etc.
From the interview with Dr. Ahmed, we learned that a good prevention method for those at risk for AMD is a change in lifestyle habits. For example, quitting smoking, minimizing computer use, and improving one's diet all could benefit eye health. Optometrists recommend a lot of leafy greens and dark vegetables, which contain a variety of carotenoids, including lutein.
Dr. Ahmed stated that not many studies has been done with lutein but there is a consensus it has a positive effect on AMD.
She also discussed that many patients will not recognize AMD as it develops. As the vision decreases or spotting occurs, they think they may only need glasses. More research is needed for the disease and potential treatments as well as vitamins like lutein which can help.
As part of our side project on the biosynthesis of lutein and to acquire a better understanding of the challenges facing synthetic biology entrepreneurs in moving their project from a proof of concept to an industrial level we visited the University of Maryland Bioprocess Scale-up Facility . BSF is a facility at the University of Maryland which provides training and is contracted by biotechnology companies in the region to optimize and prove scale up of their biosynthesis and fermentation processes to the industrial level. They kindly allowed us to tour the facility and learn about some of the unique challenges involved in reaching industrial size in a bioprocess. Gaining a greater appreciation for this both informed and invigorated our goal of making synthetic biology cheaper, safer, and more affordable for community DIY labs and entrepreneurs.
1. Department of Health and Human Services. Antimicrobials Sold Or Distributed For Use In Food-Producing Animals. Food and Drug Administration; 2013:6-57.