Meetups:May LMU-Munich/Workshops




SynBio Day

During the Meetup all the german iGEM Teams had the possibility to participate at Workshops. One of them was the discussion about a german wide SynBio Day. Since the agreement to one single day seemed quite difficult, the participants at the Workshop agreed to a german wide SynBio Week, which was scheduled to the second week of August. On one day in this week each team has the possibility to present their projects to the broad public of their home town. The idea behind a SynBio day is to inform and try to work against prejudges regarding Synthetic Biology. These aims could be achieved by talking head to head with all kinds of people on public places or making informative videos addressing aspects of Synthetic Biology in order to reach people via social media or the team wiki. Furthermore we planed on designing a survey in order to get an idea about the german public opinion on Synthetic Biology.

Stay tuned for more details.


In this group 15 students sat down together to discuss bioethical issues in the field of synthetic biology.

The first part of the discussion dealt with the question of how far synthetic biology should go and if limitations should be set. “Creation of life“ is one of the terms associated with synthetic biology. In contrast to classical biotechnology, where organisms are only partially modified, it aims to completely redesign and construct organisms analogously to devices in the engineering sciences. Despite advantages regarding biosafety, since safety mechanisms can be implemented during the construction process, the question of the limits arises. Fundamental ethical questions have to be addressed: how much influence may we take on our environment? Would the man-made creation of life lead to a new view of ourselves, analogously to Darwin’s theory of evolution? And would the new insights have a positive outcome or result in the depreciation of life and the decline of moral values?

Although questions being too big and complex to be answered in one afternoon by a group of students, different aspects and views mentioned led to a vibrant discussion. Also a general consensus could be drawn: studying the molecular and most basic principles of life should not be regarded as an attempt to take control over nature, but instead gives us a better understanding of life and the opportunity to obtain a new perspective of ourselves in a bigger context, leading to the appreciation of life, ourselves and society.

In the second part the question of how synthetic biology could change our society was addressed. The big potential of synthetic biology could have a huge impact on the energy, fuel and food industries. By implementing natural metabolic pathways into new organisms, industrial processes could be revolutionized and current problems, like our dependence on fossil fuels, solved. But with great power comes great responsibility: what are the socioeconomic effects? Is it possible to achieve a fair distribution of the goods and to prevent a too big influence of companies and the establishment of monopolies, so that society profits in the end?

The discussion of possible socioeconomic effects made up most of the time of the afternoon. Especially aspects of an open source vs. patent controlled field were discussed. With the former allowing cheap research and development and the latter enabling the funding of expensive and time-intensive projects and the secure income of inventors, the consensus in the group was that neither one nor the other system could be discarded in favour of the other. Instead, an alternative or hybrid system might be the most preferable scenario for the future. 1

Since these aspects aroused high interest in the group we decided to establish a cooperation of the German iGEM teams in order to further investigate socioeconomic effects of synthetic biology, the associated responsibility and other important questions. For the cooperation we set different goals which include the review of the iGEM registry in regard of the license status of the parts, the establishment of an interest group for young academics in life sciences and the further investigation of the patent vs. open source issue.

1 For further reading on this topic see: Bryn Nelson ‘Synthetic Biology: Cultural Divide ’, Nature 509, 152–154, 08 May 2014.


In the sub-group dealing with Biosafety the following points were discussed:

  • Lab safety
  • Biosafety
    • Containment of GMOs
    • Containment of Plasmids from GMOs
    • Containment of genomic DNA from GMOs

  • Lab safety

We discussed the working procedures in the laboratory, the dealing with GMOs and the protection of health, environment and researcher. We came to the conclusion, that the german GMO-regulations are quite precise about these points, and if followed the risks are very low.

  • Biosafety

We worked out three important points when considering the implementation of Biosafety into any SynBio project:

    • Containment of GMOs: This can be achieved by using lab strains containing:
      • Auxotrophies (many lab strains are dependent on specific compounds not often found in nature in high amounts, such as Tryptophane for the B. subtilis lab strain W168)
      • Dependancy on synthetic compounds (Engineered bacteria, which depend on synthetic compounds not found in nature)
      • Lyse-switches triggered for example by UV-light or the absence of synthetic compounds (lyse-switches such as implemented from the 2012 iGEM team from Paris-Bettencourt)
      • Physical containment (in bags, such as implemented from the iGEM 2012 team from Groningen, or the utilization of alginate capsules such as implemented from the iGEM 2012 team from Paris-Bettencourt)

The conclusion was, that there are many strategies of which many are successful to contain the GMO itself.

But what about the engineered DNA? Such as:

    • Containment of Plasmids from GMOs (a mobile element, possibility of horizontal gene transfer):
      • tRNA-transferase of an engineered codon in genome, so that only the GMO can translate the mRNA from the Plasmid (orthogonal coding of aminoacids)
      • Toxin on Plasmid, and anti-toxin in genome (as implemented in the project Auxin from the iGEM 2011 team from the Imperial College London)
      • Xenobiology: Recoding of complete codons

So also for this purpose, there are many (also working) solutions to implement such a safety device.

The most important point, that crystalized during our discussion, was that the containment of the complete genomic DNA of the GMO would be the "holy grail" of Synthetic Biologie. But also that there are no working strategies to date. Though there are strategies, that might be implemented in the future:

    • Containment of genomic DNA from GMOs:
      • DNase expression to destroy the complete genome (Though most DNases are not efficient enough to destroy the DNA completely)
      • Xenobiology: The orthologie of the complete DNA through the recoding of the amino-acid code, the utilization of XNAs and other strategies for the prevention of cross-talk with wildtype bacteria. Though the complete genome, or the parts engineered would have to be adjusted, or even in the end the production of synthetic cells have to be accomplished. This is more or less still up in the air.
      • CRISPR: specific destruction of synthetic DNA through guided restriction digestion, maybe triggered through UV-light or the absence of synthetic compounds.