Human Practices


This human practices project focuses on public perceptions of synthetic biology applications and their ethical implications. Several significant concerns arise regarding ethics and biosafety, especially the biohazard potential of the applications of synthetic biology. These can be addressed through discussion with the general public. Our research uncovered three distinct viewpoints: The general public perceives synthetic biology to be complex, risky and uncertain. We attempt to elucidate negative perceptions through exploratory research, and dissuade uncertainty through interactive debate.

iGEM Biosensors

In the past few years, many iGEM teams have constructed biosensors. These biosensors were targeted at a huge range of analytes with the use of various enzymes.

Figure 1. Statistics on iGEM projects working on biosensor, 2012-2014.

Exploratory Research

The primary focus of the HKUST-Rice 2015 iGEM team project is to develop a microbial biosensor to detect available nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium (NPK) concentrations in soil. This idea could be extended beyond agriculture, such as in water quality surveillance or sewage management. The human practices team explores the opinions of stakeholders invested in soil sensing technologies.

Figure 2. Interviewees’ perceptions on the field applications of an NPK microbial sensor.

The paradigm above illustrates interviewees’ perceptions on the in-field use of NPK microbial biosensors in their field (Figure 2).

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Bioethical Debate

The HKUST-Rice iGEM team collaborated with the Rice University Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering (IBB) Girls’ BioScience STEM Initiative, a weeklong summer camp held each year for economically disadvantaged high school students. These young ladies were asked to debate the following question: “Is it ethical to treat microorganisms as a machine for the betterment of agriculture?”

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