Biosafety is the prevention of unintentional exposure to pathogens and toxins and their accidental release, which is important when dealing with gene modified organisms (GMOs). Because GMOs are organisms that are not naturally encountered in the environment their release to the environment can form a safety issue.
We carried out our experiments the laboratory at Center for Synthetic Biology, which is classified as ‘GMO Class 1’. This means that work is restricted to genetically modified microorganisms and/or cell cultures, which are not suspected to be pathogenic to humans.
Thus our main concerns are to the preserve the natural ecosystem and minimize the risk of spreading transgenic moss into the wild.
Our team followed a lab tour concerning the biosafety in the lab provided by experienced laboratory technician Britta Hamberger. She ensured the work was done in accordance with the current rules in the Order on Gene Technology and Occupational Health and Safety, supplemented by Danish Working Environment Authority Guidance C.0.4. (www.at.dk)
We also took part of a workshop concerning Biosafety at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) held by the DTU iGEM team. Before the workshop every team member had to complete a short safety quiz that allowed us to evaluate our knowledge. At the workshop we also developed our knowledge in lab safety procedures and we got familiarized with PCR, cloning and transformation.
We learned that every step, including all handling, production, use, propagation, storage, destruction, disposal and transport, is important when working with GMOs due to the great consequences that might originate from the incorrect manipulation of the GMOs or release biological parts. Therefore it was an obligation for every team member to receive instructions in biosafety in order to prevent and reduce any potential risk.
How safe Are We?
There is always a risk working with GMO, but we thrive to make it as small as possible. We have transformed Physcomitrella Patens with genes from grapes and a worm. The Resveratrol gene from grapes would most likely not be beneficial for the wildtype moss if it was released back into the wild. The anti-freeze protein, on the other hand,would hopefully improve the moss capacity to survive colder temperature. We do not know the implication the release of the modified moss could have on the natural ecosystem. We have therefore taken certain precautions in the lab to avoid this worst case scenario as we are working with a GMO after all. To work with GMO there is specific requirements to the laboratory depending on the risk pose by the organisms you work with. As we work with a non-pathogenic plant, we were able to conduct our research in a GMO laboratory of level 1.
Can It Be Misused by People?
As the function we are striving for is improving it for Mars, it would be difficult to find other uses for this organism compared to the benefit of so many others. If we really did improve the moss' survivability in cold areas, it might be able to grow in new habitats on Earth, if sown there intentionally, but that should not pose a great threat to humanity.
Current space missions go through planetary protection protocols to ensure that foreign bodies are not contaminated. The Planetary Protection Treaty was established in 1956 by the Committee on Space Research. The aim of the Treaty is to prevent forward and back contamination during a space mission. Forward contamination is the contamination of a celestial object by organisms from earth that may have contaminated the spacecraft on the way to the object. The slightly rarer case would be back contamination, which is the risk of bringing unknown lifeforms - if they do exist - back to earth. Both have quite alarming ethical implications.