iGEM Bielefeld 2015

Dual Use

More than biosafety and biosecurity: Ethics, Laws and Guidelines


We decided to do an analysis of biosecurity, specifically the dual use issue of our project. While we were scanning the literature for information about our biosensor for detection of date rape drugs, we encountered many sensitive information about the accessibility and (chemical) synthesis of date rape drugs. Those information are publicly available. Especially the publication of a freely available ingredient raised our concern. This knowledge can create a threat to the health of people, if it is misused.

Because iGEM is an open source competition, we might ourselves provide knowledge that could be of dual use. Since iGEM asks us to be striving to be conscientious members of the synthetic biology community, we informed ourselves about existing biosafety, biosecurity and dual use regulations.

We found the legal situation in Germany, the European Union and the USA to be inconsistent. In addition to these laws, many proposals from various advisory boards and non governmental organizations exist. We provide an overview about the proposals of these organizations and summarize various aspects of the ongoing ethical discussion about the opposing needs freedom of science and regulation of research with possible biosecurity issues. Therefore we contacted several experts from ethics committees, members of the German ethics council, a constitutional lawyer and a law student from the USA, as well as the iGEM safety committee itself. In fruitful discussions we obtained various opinions from different academical perspectives.

In the year 2011, the iGEM main page had a security section, which stated

"As a participant in iGEM, there are three things you can do right now to help us secure our science:

  1. Fully answer the safety questions that demonstrates that you have thought about how others could misuse your work
  2. Contribute to community discussions on what needs to go into a code against the use of our science for hostile purposes (see A Community Response)
  3. Look into what security provisions, such as laws and regulations, are already in place in your country (see Working within the Law)"

(iGEM Security Page 2011)

While the answering of the safety questions is already obligatory, we addressed the laws and regulations as well as the contribution to a community discussion with our analysis and report.

We wondered, why we did not find any biosafety, biosecurity and dual use definitions within the iGEM safety page 2015. A specific security page was not established in the manner of 2011. iGEM offers many regulations and risk assessments concerning biosafety and provides a great infrastructure with its interdisciplinary expert team, the biosafety commission. We want to complete this biosafety and security aspects by finding guidelines for the safe distribution of information and the dual use in research. We propose the implementation of definitions in the safety page and questions aiming for biosecurity and dual use risk assessment in the obligatory safety forms. iGEM has a unique potential in reaching out in education of young researchers to contribute to a responsible research community.

We performed the risk assessment for our project. In addition to our public outreach and several expert contacts, this analysis results influenced our project significantly. The findings broadened our horizon in the context of interdisciplinary collaboration and communication with the public - to build up to the trust put into us.

We believe, that iGEM can be a role model in raising awareness of biosecurity and dual use risks - for a better international collaboration to create beneficial knowledge.

We briefly summarize our findings on these pages. The detailed report is available as a PDF.