Team:Purdue/Policy and Practices/Projects


Introduction to Projects

As an iGEM team, we wanted to develop some ways through which the team could answer this fundamental question: How can systematic management of microbial soil ecologies benefit modern agriculture? This is not an easy question to answer, and analyzing this complex, interdisciplinary problem took the team down several paths, including the fields of agricultural policy, ethics, and synthetic biology. Alongside the science project, which verifies that management of microbial soil ecologies is indeed viable and beneficial, Policy and Practices sought to prove that this untapped field of agricultural development was feasible from a non-scientific standpoint.

How would the public view genetically enhancing microorganisms in the soil? The government? Is this an economically viable means of enhancing crops? In order to answer all of these questions, the Policy and Practices team completed a number of exciting projects, covering a wide spectrum of disciplines. Members of the team engaged with both public and private entities in an effort to better understand current agricultural practices and develop interdisciplinary communication regarding synthetic biology and agriculture. Other efforts aimed to supplement the science portion of the project, such as using research to model the economic and scientific viability of implementing the project on an industrial scale.


One area of Policy and Practices that the team felt powerfully drawn to was changing public opinion regarding the use of synthetic biology in agriculture. Without a strong base of support, synthetic biology practices will only be more difficult and expensive to implement. Thus, in order to be able to live in a world where synthetic biology is a viable practice, organizations like iGEM have the responsibility to inform the public of the potential hazards and benefits of synthetic biology.

An opportunity presented itself in the spring of 2013 that allowed the iGEM team to contribute to a nationwide scientific education campaign housed here at Purdue. Purdue ZipTrips is a scientific outreach leg of the College of Agriculture that develops educational videos for students in junior high (grades 6, 7, and 8). Each month, participating classrooms from around the country watch a number of videos centered around a common theme in science. Some examples include genetics, plant science, and nutrition. These supplementary videos culminate in an interactive “field trip” where the ZipTrips team live streams an episode to the classrooms.

The iGEM team contacted Purdue Ziptrips and collaborated on the “Plant Science: The Green Machine” episode that aired in September. A film crew interviewed members of the science team and related what the project was about to concepts the audience might be learning in class. They also toured the lab in which the science team worked. In all, over 7,000 students around the country learned about iGEM and how synthetic biology is benefitting their way of life. The hope is that by fostering an appreciation for science in school-age kids, they learn to seek out knowledge and marvel at the beautiful things science can do.

Beck's Hybrids Event

From August 21st-23rd, the Purdue iGEM team manned a booth at “Becknology Days”, an event held by the seed company Beck’s Hybrids to showcase their latest innovations. This massive event was estimated to bring in over 10,000 people to the Atlanta, Indiana headquarters, mostly members of Midwest farming communities and representatives from many nationally-recognized agricultural businesses. The iGEM team saw this event as a prime Policy and Practices networking opportunity, where the team could discuss ethical and regulatory questions with people involved in the field of agriculture, as well as gather survey data related the public’s opinion on genetic engineering.

Attending the event was an amazing and educational experience for the iGEM team. The team surveyed over 100 individuals, and held many fascinating conversations with the people who stopped by the booth. There was overwhelming positive feedback regarding the project, and many of those surveyed agreed that not directly modifying the crop was an ingenious and PR-friendly decision. In fact, over 91% of those surveyed said that enhancing soil-inhabiting bacteria would be a viable way to increase nutrition in crops; 94% believed that synthetic biology was a benefit to agriculture. Almost all of the people had never heard of iGEM, but were incredibly impressed by the work done by independent undergraduate students. Overall, the team thoroughly enjoyed their time at Becknology Days and cannot wait to go back next year!

The surveys collected at Becknology Days are an extension of a larger data collection project started by last year’s Human Practices team. During both the academic year and summer terms, members went to farmers’ markets in the Purdue/Lafayette area and polled attendees (including both farmers and non-farmers) about their opinions on synthetic biology and its use within agriculture. Over 75% of those polled said they would not use a product that was labelled “genetically modified” and the general consensus was that genetic modification was an overall condemned practice.

Farmer-Industry Forum

As a way of creating interdisciplinary communication in the fields of synthetic biology and agriculture, the Policy and Practices team developed an idea for a Farmers-Industry Forum to be held here at Purdue. The event was to feature a collection of talks and presentations given by industry partners and Purdue professors; the focus would be centered around methods of enhancing crop yield, with particular emphasis on techniques utilizing synthetic biology. In essence, the goal was to encourage dialogue between members of the rural agricultural community, industry leaders, and academics. The Forum would have also posed a great opportunity to gauge public opinion on the science project by discussing with the farmers who would be using the product, the industrial representatives who may have researched similar products. This information would have been a useful supplement to answering the question of the scientific, commercial, and regulatory viability of manipulating soil ecologies.

Unfortunately, circumstances did not allow for the Forum to be brought to fruition. A few companies had indicated interest in partnering with us for the Forum, such as Dow AgroSciences and Beck’s Hybrids. Professors had been contacted to speak, and a schedule of events had been composed and distributed. We contacted Purdue Ag-Ambassadors and the Indiana Farm Bureau as a means of contacting local farmers, as well as advertising the event at “Becknology Days”. However, the date of the Forum was for late August, and time where most farmers were busy in the fields, and there was too little definite interest to hold the Forum. However, the plan is to use the contacts from industry gained from this year’s project to put together a forum at a time where farmers are perhaps not as busy.

Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA)

An economic analysis is an essential condition in determining the viability of microbial soil ecology manipulation. This is a largely untested area of agricultural science, and so any tool that might be developed to evaluate the cost of implementing a new technology would be an immense benefit. Even a rudimentary approximation can be a useful reference point to compare the financial feasibilities of new technologies to ones that currently exist. The Policy and Practices team determined that composing an economic and large-scale analysis of the science team’s project would be a major help in answering our fundamental question.

Over the course of the year, members of P&P compiled relevant data and used cost information gathered by the treasurer to develop a model that could identify how much it would cost for a farmer to utilize a product similar to the one the science team developed. Some factors that are considered in the model are acreage of the plot, domestic vs. international distribution, and scaling factors related to size of the order. Ultimately, the model is a good base indicator for a party interested in purchasing the product, and is functional enough to be a beneficial tool in measuring the cost effectiveness of utilizing microbial soil ecology manipulation.

Though the cost-benefit analysis is an effective resource, there are nonetheless improvements that could make the model more robust and user-friendly. Originally, the team had visualized the CBA as an interactive web applet, something that could have perhaps been embedded on this wiki. Ideally, the CBA would have allowed the user to select their respective state or country off of an interactive map, as transportation distance is a major contributor to cost. Other buttons that offered more detailed options to customize the analysis would also have been present. Future work would require the assimilation of a programmer into the ranks of the iGEM team.

Presentation to Dow Agro

As mentioned before when discussing the Farmers-Industry Forum, Purdue iGEM has had considerable interaction with Dow AgroSciences and other industry partners. One significant benefit of being in contact with industry for an iGEM project is their expertise in research and market analysis. These billion-dollar companies know the markets and understand what products are going to sell. They also hold world-class scientists who have worked on similar projects. Thus, they make incredible resources and can give useful advice to developing projects. This proved to be the case when members of the science team presented at Dow AgroSciences.

Over the summer, a pair of science team members travelled to Dow AgroSciences as a part of their involvement with the Molecular Agriculture Summer Institutes and showcased this year’s science project to a number of scientists, managers, and interns. They justified the idea of modifying microbial soil ecologies as opposed to a traditional genetic modification of the crop and explained how the paradigm shift would be a major benefit to modern agriculture. Two Dow Agro scientists, Steve Evans and Dave Anderson gave exceptionally useful feedback about public opinion and marketing advice that the team took into careful consideration, and expressed their approval of such the unique method of improving crop nutrition.

Soil Content Database

Another tool that the team had thought to develop was a regionalized map or database of soil content. Soil ecologies are extremely versatile, and different soil compositions might require different needs for useful modification. It might also be a factor in how much the cost would be to implement such soil ecology technologies. This map/database would serve as a reference tool for potential customers or farmers who are merely curious about the soil content of their fields.

Initially, the team planned to collect samples from all around Indiana in an effort to begin building a rudimentary databaseand then reach out to other iGEM teams to collect soil samples and send them to us for analysis. However, further research indicated that the United States Department of Agriculture already has a “Web Soil Survey” that can generate soil data specific to a user-input “Area of Interest”. Though this data does not include nutrient content, it does convey that different types of soil exist on the same plots of land. An acre of farmland could contain over a dozen types of soil, all of which have different content properties. Thus, the team surmised that the iron levels of one sample could vary greatly compared to a sample taken 200 feet away, rendering a collective database to be of minimal use. For anyone looking to get soil data, the Web Soil Survey is a great resource to find soil type and grade, if not actual soil content.

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