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Human Practices

Humans and SynBio

Humans and SynBio is our team's take on the Humans of New York project that showcases the diversity of people in New York City and their stories. Humans and SynBio aims to display the opinions of the public on synthetic biology, genetic engineering and related topics. By actively engaging with our local community through Humans and SynBio, we have learned a great deal about peoples' hopes and concerns about synthetic biology. We have integrated some of these opinions we garnered into our project design - an explanation of these precautions is detailed in our risk assessment section.
We continue to actively solicit and accept submissions for Humans and Synbio. We hope that by using Humans and SynBio as a platform for public discussion, we can make synthetic biology a safer and more accepted practice. Please contact us through Facebook if you are interested in participating!

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Ithaca, NY | Steamboat Landing

"I actually found a study a few years ago on E. coli, specifically about the fact that beef can be contaminated very easily. But this study actually showed if you grass-fed your beef you had a much lower incidence, and feeding grain to the animals gave rise to E. coli that was acid resistant."

Because they're not meant to eat corn?

"Yep - there was a even a part of it that said if you stopped feeding them grain the last few weeks before slaughter, the levels of the worst E. coli would actually drop."

Did anybody act on that?

"I'm not sure if anybody did. It's really hard to change the conventional part because we're just so geared to feeding them corn."
Ithaca, NY | Steamboat Landing

"Well, I think it's kind of like medicine: do we really know what the impacts of all medicines are? I don't know. Do we know if using a certain medicine will be definitively better or will it make something worse in every situation? I don't know. I think that as humans we will always be curious about whether we can can change the world around us to do what we want it to do. But I think it should be done under strictly experimental conditions until all the impacts are observed and noted and until then it shouldn't be applied on any sort of large scale. That's a grey zone because you don't really know when that happens. I don't think the effort here should be about answering a yes-or-no question; effort should be put into seeing if we can experiment in the right way."
Ithaca, NY | Wegman's

"Coming from a creative writing major, I guess the issue needs to be addressed very heavily and it needs to honestly go a lot higher than it has been in terms of publicity. It's great that you guys are coming here to people and asking them about it, but certainly things like this can definitely be considered on a higher standard. I think it's a very pressing issue and definitely needs to be addressed. It can be brought up pretty much to the college level even down even to the grade schools."

What about a specific application of synthetic biology, like an environmental filter?

"Absolutely! Yeah, I think it's fine. As long as it brings an impact that can definitely be used in a positive way and definitely enhance the communities around and stuff like that, I see no real issues with it."
Ithaca, NY | Wegman's

"It's bad! It's not natural... But if it is only for the research then it is okay."

"It's very cool, it's like great technology, but whenever you do it to food it's probably not very healthy. It's like a coin with two sides."
Ithaca, NY | Wegman's

[About genetically modified organisms in food]

"I'd like to see what the evidence is eventually. I try to avoid things that might be a potential problem, so like you said: buy a lot of organic food, and if it's certified organic food then it's not going to have GMO's in it any way, hopefully."

On the flip side, do you think if GMOs helped solve underfeeding with something like Golden Rice - would that be a benefit?

"I think so. We are fortunate enough to have choices here, but on the same token, I'd like to see what the evidence is as far as if it is actually beneficial or harmful, as far as the science of it, but I think giving people access to food is important. I don't want people to starve because I want to know what's in what I eat. I'd like to see sort of less politicized evidence-I'd like to see the actual science of it... I'm an evidence-based person, so I want to see what the evidence is."
Ithaca, NY | Wegman's

[Midway through our conversation]

"By the way, I'm a biophysics grad student."

Oh, so what do you think about making a tool by modifying bacteria?

"As long as the strain is not harmful, I don't have a problem with it. And as long as it is following the infectious disease rules, I'm fine with it. So you're not offending me."
Ithaca, NY | Wegman's with some radishes

"Environmentally, I think I would go for natural things more and I would imagine it would be healthier too. And we know that plants and vegetables, fruits, and trees that we are familiar with have been in existence for thousands of years so we know about them, but this mutation and biology that is being implemented and developed - we don't know anything about it. It's still in the experimental stage and personally I am a nature person - I don't like artificial things.

"...I mean if it helps people, ultimately I think it is a good thing. I mean if you go to Africa or some of the less developed countries their goal is really survival they are not thinking about organic versus artificially developed foods. So first you want to meet the basic needs of human beings- help them! - then if you can have the luxury of distinguishing between organic and inorganic foods then I think we would do that. I would go for organic. Like here for example: Cornell, Ithaca."
Ithaca, NY | Ho Plaza, Cornell University

"I feel the way most people do, that GMOs are not exactly natural. I believe it is dangerous to rely on genetic engineering to continue producing high quantities of low cost food. However, as a future scientist working with synthetic biology, I can see great opportunities for us to better the world, to fix the problems that humans have caused. That line between right and wrong, is extremely difficult to define and I hope that others will understand that as scientists working to solve many problems, it is hard for us to see that line too. It bothers me that whenever people see: "GMO" they immediately pass it off as something bad or unnatural. There are many reasons why GMOs are used in agriculture-there are too many mouths to feed on this planet - and if it were a choice between starvation and GMO food on the table, which would you choose? If people are so concerned about GMOs being used in farming, then they should encourage small farms and the next generation to pick up farming. It is hands down the most important job in the world-I wish people could understand that."
Ithaca, NY | by Carpenter Hall, Cornell University

"Humans have always used animals to do experiments. Like rats, mice, and I wouldn't say that it is a problem. I mean you have to use it with conscience. For me it is fine if you can follow the ethical rules."

"I agree with using animals to studies because I think it is important to improve the area - the scientific area - and I think that if you follow the ethical rules to use the animals then everything is fine and we can keep on using animals for science."

"Yeah. You have to care about the animals because they are helping you-you are not just using them, they are not your property so you have to treat them well. You have to respect another life."

If you could make any animal do something with biological engineering, what would you do?

"Well I personally would like to fly so if there is a way to make humans fly, like frogs have that -- to breath under water... I would really like that."
Ithaca, NY | Wegman's

"I think there is definitely a limitation for where we're going, but for something like this where it improves pollution, I don't see how it is going past that limitation yet."

What limitation are you talking about?

"Um, I guess in terms of ethics, something that directly effects some type of life, like if it is harming a certain organism, but in this case I just feel like it is benefiting society in general."

Do you think that line is hard to define? If it is harming the organism, but benefiting society a lot is that still okay?

"Definitely because people have different ideas of what life is in general so there are definitely different perspectives of what is right or wrong so I guess it's important to communicate and try to find a good compromise."
Joseph, OR | Wallowa Lake

"I believe that synthetic biology holds promise for either solving or reducing the impact of many of humanities greatest challenges ranging from disease, to famine, to pollution which have so far evaded solution using other technologies…One concern of synthetic biology is that there may be people who would use the technology to the detriment of society. Another possible risk is that something is created that has an unintended affect that goes unnoticed for too long. For those reasons, people involved in the field need to have high ethical standards and rigorous testing of products should be completed prior to release. However, I see the potential benefits of synthetic biology far outweighing the concerns."

Do you have any concerns regarding genetically modified foods?

"I think food, which is very personal, can have a high “worry factor” regarding whether it is safe and that something as complex as synthetic biology is difficult for people who are not in the field to understand. People tend to fear what they don’t understand. Perhaps people in the field/industry of synthetic biology could improve their image through education of the public regarding the products they provide."
Troutdale, OR | Angel's Rest

"I believe that synthetic biology has many important applications, especially in a world where the population is growing and people are living longer. We are using more resources than ever and I believe that we need to use the tools at our disposal in order to decrease our negative impact on the earth. However, as with any new scientific process or technology, it is important to regulate it and educate people about these forms of synthetic biology."

What concerns do you have about genetically modified foods?

"My concerns lie more in how genetically modified crops are tested and regulated. For example, when I take a prescription medication for a disease, or antibiotic for a bacterial infection, I am aware that the drug has undergone extensive research, including laboratory development, animal trials, and clinical trials before I personally am allowed to take it. It makes me feel safer knowing that these protocols are in place to insure that I am being treated in the safest way possible…Like medication, food is something that we ingest daily, and thus any food, genetically modified or not, needs to fulfill certain safety protocols. Genetically modified foods should go through extensive testing before they are marketed for human consumption because their biology has been altered."
Oxford iGEM | Oxford, UK.

Should Synthetic Biology be open to everyone?

"Absolutely, synthetic biology should be open to everyone, as in, everyone should have the opportunity to get involved in the actual process of it. However, like with any consumer good it should always be regulated for safety purposes and to avoid any ethical problems. The development background should always be made available to the consumer."

Do you think that GMOs have the capacity to help the problem of overpopulation?

"Yes. I think they do. I think the public opinion of GMOs needs to be radically re-educated. I think a lot of people don't understand that it is completely natural occurrences as in DNA is involved in everything we eat. Everything we eat is organic, carbon based, and biologically occurring. Synthetic biology is the manipulation of living things which is what agriculture essentially is just over a much longer time period, and people still view it with a negative stigma."
Beaverton, OR | Community garden

"My opinion of synthetic biology is that it will have a positive impact on the world. I think it will help solve some of the big environmental problems we face such as pollution and depletion of some of our natural resources. I also believe it will be very important in developing new treatments for disease. I think there is lack of public support in this area of research because many people do not know much about it."

Do you have any concerns regarding genetically modified food?

"My concerns with genetically modified foods are that we start producing them for profit only and don’t carefully weigh the potential hazards. I am confident that the genetically modified foods we buy today are safe and have been properly regulated by our government, but I worry that as more and more are developed some governments may not properly regulate them."
Ithaca, NY

What do you think about GMOs?

"I think that it depends on the situation. I think synthetic biology is definitely something that we can't really turn back from anymore because we are always trying to progress as humans, but I think in a lot of cases we should be really cautious and not use it necessarily just because it's there. When I'm talking about food, a lot of times GMOs aren't really unsafe food, but it's still the idea that we are constantly trying to be better and progress and I think as with anything else, sometimes we should stop.
For example they made crops that are herbicide resistant so that they could spray more herbicides onto the crops so that they could grow more, and they really didn't need to grow more of those crops but they would save money if they did, so they did that and now they are spraying more chemicals. So the GMO resistance isn't really bad for us, but it encourages us to do more industrialized farming that isn't really necessary."

So where is the "line" between appropriate and inappropriate GMO applications for you?

"I thought that nutrient enriched crops were okay and good in poor countries; I thought that certain pest-resistant crops are neutral. . . ., but then there are other crops that are herbicide resistant and I think that that is too far because you are encouraging the use of more chemicals."
Montgomery, NJ | Bio classroom with a plant

Do you think synthetic biology, in terms of genetic engineering, is moral or immoral?

"If a child has some sort of congenital disease, I believe it would be moral to alter the disease so that the child wouldn't have to deal with it as an adult or a teenager. But, it would get unethical when you change the way a child looks or his or her personality, if you can even do that. Children are what they are when they are born, and it's unnatural if you try to change that."
Ithaca, NY

"To me, synthetic biology is artificially playing the genetics of organisms, changing them on the genetic life. I'm pretty neutral towards it. I mean, a lot of artificial organisms have been pretty helpful, so I can't see why we can't do synthetic biology."

What's your stance on GMOs - are they more helpful or harmful?

"I think a lot of different people are using GMOs these days. It actually helps a lot because they make the food bigger, or tastier, or more resistant to diseases. It helps us get the proper amount of food we need to sustain the human population - so I don't see anything wrong with that so long as the process isn't harmful to the environment in any way - which it's not... yet..."
Ithaca, NY

"Oh synthetic biology? We talked a little about that in my science class! It's super cool because smart scientists can use synthetic biology to insert jellyfish DNA into pig DNA. Do you know what happens then? The jellyfish DNA is able to make pigs glow. That way, farmers can keep track of their pigs at night time. With this new technology, farmers won't need to worry about losing pigs when it gets dark out!"
Ithaca, NY

What are some moral and ethical concerns?

"It could be used as a bioweapon, but it should be regulated enough that this shouldn't be an issue. The most dangerous thing is that it could be potentially dangerous to the researchers, especially if you are introducing new genes in bacteria that have never been observed before. If bacteria are dangerous and spread easily, new types diseases could be potentially created/spread if research isn't careful . There is so much good that could come out of synthetic biology though that as long as they have good regulations, it's fine."

What is your dream application of synthetic biology?

"It'd be awesome for any sort of medical application. If bacteria could be used to generate power or used as fuel source that'd be cool too."
KoKo's Korean Restaurant | Ithaca, NY

What do you think the field of computer science could contribute to biology?

"The magic of the computer lies in its ability to remove the limitations of human capability. Whereas in the past our creativity was restricted by what was manually possible, today the computer is enabling discoveries that the mind is simply incapable of making on its own. I believe we will see the computer as an integral part of many of the seminal discoveries within synthetic biology in the next decade. Through the computer’s power in analyzing enormous sets of data and sheer calculating speed we will be able to make connections that were previously unfathomable. The use of DNA as storage and biological computing are fundamentally changing the definition of computers. We are only at the beginning - there are applications of computer science to synthetic biology and vice-versa that no one has yet imagined. There are algorithms to be discovered and research to be done and I will remain optimistic in watching the field grow out of its infancy and mature."
Ithaca, NY

What are some ethical concerns you have regarding genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms?

"I think there is something that has to be said with regards to how we are producing at a rate just to meet our population's needs as opposed to the natural rate of growth. For me, personally, I think that fighting nature in the sense that we are with genetic modification can pose a potential concern. That's not to say that I think that science has not done its due diligence with the process. I understand that there is a pressing need to produce at a higher rate, but I think that there are some moral concerns associated with opposing the natural rate."
Duffield Hall, Cornell University | Ithaca, NY Engineers hard at work pause to share some thoughts about SynBio

What do you think about GMOs? What is the limit to what you would buy in terms of genetically modified food?

"If it glows"
White Mountains, NH

What do you think of Gene Therapy?

"I don’t know if it’s safe or not, but I think it makes sense as a direction to look for medicine, because the more we learn about what causes things to go wrong…the better."

What is your opinion of the field of synthetic biology?

"I don’t have as much of a concern as some other people seem to have. I imagine with people it can be very helpful, with medicine and a lot of bad diseases. I guess it could be used in strange ways too, you know, maybe you can make me into the next Olympian!"
Ithaca, NY | Applefest

Scientists have recently genetically modified apples so that they can no longer brown, potentially cutting the price of selling sliced apples by 40 percent. What is your opinion on that, or towards genetically modified foods in general?

"I think on a semantic level, GMOs aren't any different from artificial selection. At a basic level, "genetically modified organisms" could apply to any organism selected for some trait. Traits often come about from mutations and I personally don't see any difference from waiting for nature to mess with DNA and us messing with DNA. I'm sure that there are scientific ways to show that there are issues that come from tinkering around with organisms, but I am also sure that there's evidence to show that it doesn't matter otherwise."
uOttawa iGEM | Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

How would you define synthetic biology?

"Synthetic biology is the discipline that is going to change the world as we know it. Never before have we been able to design such complex biological machines; this one discipline alone opens to us the possibilities of producing green biofuels, targeting diseases in unprecedented ways, and making other planets habitable - simultaneously. SynBio is one of the most rapidly expanding fields in the world of science, and it's exciting to wonder where we'll be able to take all of this in the upcoming years."
Ithaca, NY | Cornell University Libraries

What is your opinion on GMO’s?

"I wouldn’t buy them. But I actually do because it’s everywhere. Lately I have been trying to buy organic foods because this all seemed to come out of nowhere—it was just last year that I noticed it. So now you can find a lot more products that are non GMO."

Do you believe that organic foods are in fact better for you?

"I hope so, but whenever a trend comes on, like the organic foods, you tend to question if it really is good for you."
Ithaca, NY | Cornell University Libraries

"It’s basically taking an organism and changing it for a different use than it is already."

How do you think synthetic biology can help and/or hurt people?

"I think it could definitely help in the medical field."

Do you have any concerns about genetic engineering?

"Well there can always be making a squirrel more vicious. Or some other animal that could hurt people. But that would hopefully be in a lab, and unless they let it escape it wouldn’t really affect us that much."
Ithaca, NY | Cornell University Libraries

What do you think synthetic biology is?

"What do I think it is? It’s like the story you were telling me about the strawberries. How there is such a difference between the normal ones that grow out in somebody’s yard and the ones you get when you’re going picking—there’s such a big difference in between them."

What is one problem you’d hope to see synthetic biology combat?

"Probably the food thing. You know, everybody has different opinions on different types of food. That would be one thing that would be good for somebody to look at and change."

Do you mean mediating opinions?

"It’s like the difference between the organic and the normal food. Just to figure out what people are doing to the normal food. Why people don’t want to eat or buy it."
Ithaca, NY | Cornell University research lab

What do you think the field of computer science can contribute to synthetic biology? What are some upcoming research ideas that you are excited to see happen?

"The advances in computer science are what allow for synthetic biology to be such a rapidly booming discipline. Only with the advent of fast, computerized data analysis are we able to systematically study every single one of nature's nuances in a high-throughput and unbiased way.

Then, by understanding everything, we can begin to understand why nature has evolved in the way it did, and give us ways to cleverly manipulate the data. In my opinion, synthetic biology wouldn't really exist without the help of computer science (obviously, it would still have been developed with Knight and the Biobricks, but would not be getting the attention that it does now)

As for upcoming research ideas, it's all about the CRISPR and Cas-9 system. The possibilities with gene editing are endless and I can't wait to see what developments arise with this wonderful technology to give Jennifer Doudna and George Church the Nobel Prize in Medicine."
Ithaca, NY

What does synthetic biology mean to you? “Absolutely nothing. It sounds like biology made of plastic.”

What is your dream application of syn-bio? “I think a biological supercomputer would be awesome. Either that or genetically modifying flour to be naturally gluten-free.”

Would you be alright with GMOs as food sources even if it risked an ecological imbalance? “If it would throw the balance completely off, like rabbits in New Zealand, then no. Other than that, no. People have been genetically modifying foods for years, just at a lesser state.”
iGEM Calgary | Calgary, Alberta, Canada

What happens when they test stuff that could hurt humans, on bunnies to make sure it doesn’t hurt humans first?

"I don’t want it to hurt the bunnies because bunnies are nature."
iGEM Calgary | Calgary, Alberta, Canada

How do you feel about humans purposely modifying organisms or species so that they will be more useful to us?

"I’m actually ok with it as long as it’s for a better purpose."

How would you define better purpose?

"Cloning for instance, a lot of people are against that. I would consider that the ability to have harvest organs available, readily available for people is a better purpose."
iGEM Calgary | Calgary, Alberta, Canada

"In general I feel that GMOs are probably a good thing. One of my concerns would be that organizations are taking advantage of developing countries to do things that they wouldn’t be allowed to do in a more developed country. The principle I’m in favor of, obviously if a developing country has the conditions that have the problem needing to be solved that it would make sense to actually do the research where the problem is. So I would be supportive for sure."
iGEM Calgary | Calgary, Alberta, Canada

What is the first think you think of when you hear the words “synthetic biology?

"Humans modifying the way biology works. It has potential to go into unwanted areas I think. There are a lot of good things you could do with it, but there are a lot of things that could happen that wouldn’t be so good. It depends on how far it develops. For instance, using it to replace diseased organs would be a good thing, but using it to create a sub-human class of beings that do all the manual labor would be a negative."
iGEM Calgary | Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Do you think there’s a limit in how far we should go with synthetic biology?

"Well yeah, I think there’s a point that we shouldn’t cross, but it’s hard to define because it’s such a broad term. You can use it for literally anything in our world, anything can be in that scope. So I think as long as it’s something that doesn’t impact our society or our environment, not necessarily just the environment in the sense like the ozone layer, I mean environment like our surroundings; as long as it doesn’t alter that. I think it’s a slippery slope because we’re doing these things to essentially make things more convenient and easier for us to do tasks. That’s what it boils down to. So by doing that, I think eventually there will come a point where it will kind of bite us in the butt a bit. And so I think by keeping that to a minimum, how much it affects everything around us, it’ll be optimal. But it’s hard to define that point so I can’t say for sure."
iGEM Calgary | Calgary, Alberta, Canada

How do you feel about humans purposely modifying organisms or species so that they will be more useful to us?

"I’m sure that there are benefits that do go along with that type of research, but I am a firm believer in the earth is where it is for a reason and we are where we are for a reason and life has evolved over millions of years without us having to make it better. We’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way so I don’t know if I trust research and peoples’ judgment. (I explained to her that domesticating animals is a way we’ve done this in the past, to which she responded…) I think all that would’ve naturally fallen into place anyways. Dogs really do love humans and they need to connect with a pack. Horses, if they really didn’t want to be trained, I don’t know if you could train them. Whereas, I believe they feel good when they’re serving a purpose as well. So I think those connections would’ve happened automatically. I don’t know if we can take complete credit for those modifications. I guess what I’m thinking is more that horses were the size of a dog and they evolved into the size they are today. I don’t know. I’m all for research certainly, but there’s also the question how far will it go. Is that going to be to evolve to the perfect human? And whose perception is the perfect human?"
Ithaca, NY | Cornell University Weill Hall

What current and upcoming research in the field of synthetic biology are you most excited about?

"I'm deeply interested in the work being conducted into potential mechanisms for combating infectious disease. The German bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich believed that a chemical compound capable of exploiting the differences between eukaryotic cells and bacterial cells could be harnessed as a "magic bullet", capable of destroying bacterial cells while leaving human cells intact. With the advent of synthetic biology, it is highly likely that a bacteriophage could be developed to act as Ehrlich's bullet. Engineering viruses to specifically attack microbial pathogens offers a highly promising solution to the clinical challenge posed by the growing inefficacy of chemotherapeutic agents. The success of such measures is crucial, as bacteria become ever more resistant to our antibiotics. Using viruses to solve this problem is a pretty neat idea. America should get on that."
Montgomery IGEM | Skillman, New Jersey What inspired you to found iGEM for Montgomery? What has been your most exciting experience and what is one project that you have always wanted to pursue?

"My inspiration for founding iGEM was really as an escape - a place to discover and explore new grounds. Our school didn't provide many outlets for lab experience or medical extracurriculars so I figure I'd give it a shot. iGEM has always been to me a way to explore new heights and challenge ourselves. My most exciting experience - it sounds cheesy - but it was definitely our first meeting. Seeing the eyes of the members just light up when we mentioned "bacterial transformation" or "genetic engineering" was just a magical experience. That's when I knew the club was going to be something bigger than just the science. As for the project, I've always wanted to do something in neuroscience. Perhaps a protein that would increase neurogenesis and thus the pathways that our minds can follow to think of new ideas."
Ridgefield, Conn.

"I think GMOs should be safe for human consumption, and synthetic biology should be okay to use in medicine especially if they have to be used in order to save someone's life. It shouldn't be used for human cloning though. If I had a superpower using synthetic biology, I'd like to be something that could help people or save lives."
What do you think is the best way to educate the public about synthetic biology and GMOs?

"Probably the best way to educate the public would be to frame it in a way that shows just how much these topics directly affect our day-to-day lives. For instance, the foods we choose to eat and how that might impact our health and longevity. In this age it is almost impossible for this to happen without the use of social media campaigns."
Queens, New York | Pumpkin patch with extraordinarily attractive pumpkin

What recent research advances in synthetic biology are you most excited about?

"One of the first syn-bio research projects I ever heard about was synthetic manufacturing of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, which can be credited to Jay Keasling and his research group at UC Berkeley, and to this day, I still consider it one of the most exciting advances. Artemisinin is produced by plants but plant production can be extremely volatile; during a particularly poor growing season, thousands more people could become more susceptible to malaria because of lack of drug production. The turning point is that now the Keasling group has figured out a way to genetically engineer Saccharomyces cerevisiae to produce an artemisinin precursor and this method boosts production tremendously. Malaria is still a huge problem in developing countries and I'm really excited to see how far this project can go. Right now, the drug is licensed to Sanofi and being scaled up to produce 35 tons and the project is backed by the Gates Foundation so... let's hope for the best!"
iGEM Calgary | Calgary, Alberta, Canada

In general, how do you feel about humans purposely modifying organisms or species so they will be more useful to us?

"If humans can benefit from modifying organisms or species they should, as long as it is done in a humane, sustainable way."

How would you define humane use of animals?

“By humane I mean in a way that doesn't cause unnecessary suffering or excruciating pain to the animals because life is precious and shouldn't be mistreated if we can help it.”
iGEM Calgary | Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Do you think there is a limit in how far we should go with syn bio?

"Synthetic biology is an area of research which has unlimited potential for growth and innovation. I believe that synthetic biology has the capacity to be hugely advantageous to the scientific community and to society as a whole. It would be irresponsible to ignore the potentially harmful applications of synthetic biology. However, the potential benefits provided by research in this area exceed the disadvantages. Through establishing firm regulations in this area I believe that research can be conducted in a safe and productive manner. I believe it is the responsibility of members of society, including those in the scientific community, to establish the ethical groundwork which will shape the aims and applications of synthetic biology."
iGEM Calgary | Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Synthetic biology creates biological systems that do not natural exist. Does anything about synthetic biology make you feel uncomfortable?

“The idea of synthetic biology doesn't make me feel uncomfortable but the applications and potential outcomes are somewhat worrisome. I don’t know much about the topic on hand but just as long as there are regulations in place and governing bodies to overlook the research and applications, I would feel at ease with it all.”
iGEM Calgary | Calgary, Alberta, Canada

“I know it's an old school example, but my favorite application of syn bio would have to be when they got E. coli to make human insulin. That definitely revolutionized how we look at type 1 diabetes and really improved people's lives.”
Cornell University | Ithaca, NY

“I can see why people often raise ethical concerns about synthetic biology and GMOs. To some extent, we are artificially manipulating nature, or as some people say, “playing God.” But at the same time, I feel that the technological innovations and benefit towards society due to genetic engineering far outweighs these qualms. For example, the Golden Rice Project strived to engineer a strain of rice rich in beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is one of the major causes of malnutrition and has historically plagued many undeveloped nations. GMOs provide a medium to produce nutrients and materials such as vitamin A in bulk, and thereby help alleviate problems like Vitamin A deficiency. With proper regulation, I see GMOs as a huge opportunity that can be safely utilized for our benefit.”
Ithaca, NY

Where do we draw the line with syn bio?

"I do not agree with the term “playing God”. In my opinion, we have a duty to use the technology we have to improve the quality of human life as well as continue forward progress. The line should be drawn where humanity and planet earth as a whole begin to suffer from the use of synthetic biology. There is a massive amount to be gained through the use of this new and rapidly expanding field. Utilizing syn bio, we may find a way to remedy many of the current issues we are experiencing, such as world hunger, combating deadly disease, etc.
Cornell University | Ithaca, NY

Why do you love iGEM?

“iGEM is awesome. On this team, not only have I learned so much about biological engineering, but I have made lifelong friends who share my passion for biology and creating new things.”
Cornell University | Ithaca, NY

Undergraduate researchers in the DeLisa Group|

What recent or upcoming research projects in synthetic biology and genetic engineering are you most excited about? What would be your dream syn-bio project?

"I am very excited about the possibility of incorporating human cellular machinery in bacteria. There are significant post-translational modifications that have a strong impact on the function of proteins, such as folding and glycosylation. However, these processes are not necessarily conserved between humans and bacteria. Bridging that step and giving bacteria that functionality to create human proteins, post-translational modifications and all, is a big dream of mine. If I were given one syn-bio wish, it would be to be able to predict the structure of whatever functioning enzyme I wanted, and to be able to make it (is that two wishes?). The idea that we could manipulate biology at the molecular level might seem crazy, but it's something I have high hopes for future generations if not our own."
Cornell University | Ithaca, NY

What upcoming research are you most excited to see happen in the field of syn-bio?

"If you were to ask me this question a year from now, my answer would probably be different. The pace at which researchers are pushing innovation in this field is absolutely incredible; a year from now, who knows how many discoveries will be published that will shape synthetic biology? For the moment though, I’m most excited to see what can still be accomplished with CRISPR: such precise DNA-editing tools will always have an enormous impact on synthetic biology and biology as a whole. We saw a similar effect many years ago with restriction enzymes; granting people the ability to reliably modify DNA evolved biology by leaps and bounds. CRISPR is still in its infancy yet has exploded on the scene. Just thinking about it excites me and makes me want to push the limits of this system."
NASA Jet Propulsion Lab | Pasadena, CA

What do you think the field of electrical engineering brings to syn-bio?

"I don't think the field of electrical engineering really brings anything to the field of syn-bio. iGEM tries to create this analogy between EE and syn-bio by having these "genetic circuits". This "genetic circuit" analogy is a great tool for explaining to non-bio people what is happening and it makes for a great buzzword to get funding.....but thats really it. Granted, one could make the argument that iGEM has mimicked various electrical components like nand gates or not gates and such. But that's just bioengineers copying EE. That isn't to say that engineering in general doesn't help biology. The great thing about iGEM is that it puts engineers and biologists in the same room and makes them work together. This way the engineering approach "break a system down to its core components, look at each component individually, put components back together so that they meet the requirements" is combined with biology. Engineers are great at taking an idea and building it so that it can withstand the harsh standards of life. Basically what I'm saying is EE specifically doesn't bring anything to syn-bio, but engineering in general allows people to analyze syn bio problems by thinking outside the box."
NASA Jet Propulsion Lab | Pasadena, CA

What are some ways that electrical engineering and molecular biology intersect?

"The only real way these two fields intersect is in standardization. As an EE, I can go to a website like look up a part and read the datasheet on the part to see if it meets my needs. If it does I buy it, if it doesn't I keep looking. Having a standard system is very important for two reasons. First, it gives everyone a common language and a set of tools to work with, which makes it so much easier to get things done. More importantly it lowers the barriers to entry, making it possible for more people to help in advancing the field. This is why iGEM emphasizes characterization so much. Having a giant standardized repository of stand alone parts that are well characterize will allow the field of syn bio to develop very quickly."
NASA Jet Propulsion Lab | Pasadena, CA

What attracted your interest to iGEM?

"I joined iGEM because to me the field of syn-bio was like an undiscovered country, waiting to be explored. The other project teams on campus allowed me to build cars, submarines, airplanes etc. These are things that engineers have been doing for ages. Plus, those fields were already heavily developed and there wasn't as much room for creativity or new ideas. iGEM on the other hand, was a new competition with lots of room to be creative. It also allowed me to combine my interests in biology and engineering at the same time which was great. In short, I joined iGEM because it was a novel competition that allowed me to explore my interests in biology and engineering."
Cornell University | Ithaca, NY

What has been your favorite or most memorable experience in iGEM so far?

"For me, nothing beats working in the lab alone, either because you're working at some ungodly hour or there's just simply no one around. It's a truly blissful experience; time ceases to exist and you are isolated with nothing but you and your science. And then the music... the music would pour through your soul and fill the gaps in between. Not just any music but your favorite kind of music that you can blast because no one else is there to listen. That's definitely an experience worth having again and again."
Geiranger, Norway

What do you think is the biggest accomplishment that iGEM has achieved?

"I believe that iGEM’s greatest accomplishment has been introducing synthetic biology to thousands of undergraduates and giving them experience they cannot usually obtain in an ordinary research lab. Participating in iGEM gives students the opportunity to take a project from conception to completion with full control over its direction and management. iGEM offers a unique experience in the world of biology that accelerates the rate of research and discovery to allow teams to make a real impact with their projects in only a single year."
Cornell University | Ithaca, NY

What does synthetic biology and iGEM mean to you?

"To me, synthetic biology is the ability to reengineer life to achieve beyond the capabilities it was given by nature. The possibilities here are truly limitless. It gives us the opportunity to detect human diseases, produce more efficient consumer products, and develop new technologies. Synthetic biology is also what brings the entire Cornell iGEM team together, and for that I'm grateful!"