Biological & Toxin Weapons Convention

In July 2014, the iGEM Calgary team connected with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Department of Foreign Affairs to discuss biosecurity and its applications within iGEM. It was proposed that four representatives from the team could join the Canadian delegation at the upcoming Biological and Toxins Weapons Conference (BTWC) at the United Nations to present their research and some of the work happening within iGEM. The BTWC hosts an audience of over 170 government delegations, representatives from many leading international organizations, and is a major force guiding international biological policy.

The BTWC is the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the production of an entire category of weapons. Existing since 1925, the convention prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons. 170 states have currently ratified the convention, and convene biannually to further the agreement. The first of the biannual meetings is the ‘Meeting of Experts’, followed by the ‘Meeting of States Parties’. The Meeting of Experts seeks to bring together those who affect biological policy with representatives from both industry and academia in the field of pathogenic and infectious diseases.

As the only undergraduate students invited to the conference, the experience was unprecedented for both the students and attendees. Our presence was incredibly well received, and a representative was invited to address the convention as a non-governmental organization. We also presented our project in a poster session and were profiled by the Canadian delegation in their address.

Our four representatives were privy to all conference events and agenda items including side events and intergovernmental luncheons. Sessions such as ‘Synthetic Biology and Biosecurity: How scared should we be?’ and ‘Regulating Gene Drives’ proved to be insightful in terms of presenting the cutting edge of biology while also considering the policy and public health concerns that surround these advances. iGEM was mentioned by multiple governments when discussing the driving forces behind synthetic biology, as well as being mentioned in a cautionary and skeptical manner.

Attending the conference revealed that there is a significant amount of fear that surrounds the topic of synthetic biology, and possibly undergraduate synthetic biology specifically. The phrase ‘now anybody can build anything anywhere’ seemed to be a recurring theme. The session presented by King’s College London ‘Synthetic Biology and Biosecurity: How scared should we be?’ aimed to dispel some of these concerns. They suggested that current fears are exaggerated, or more importantly misplaced, and that this can in turn lead to misguided policies. They tackled myths like ‘Synthetic biology is de-skilling biology and making it easier for terrorists to exploit advances in the biosciences’ by stressing the realities of synthetic biology that could impede this.

Using their native iGEM team as an example, they demonstrated the amount of knowledge, interdisciplinary cooperation, and expensive infrastructure required to tackle even the simplest of synthetic biology tasks. Expertise plays an undeniable role in synthetic biology, and multiple types of expertise are necessary. In addition, engineering biological systems is not yet an exact science; many experiments fail or require extensive troubleshooting, again requiring expertise and resources.

As undergraduate students we were able to stress to these policy makers that safety is a huge concern within iGEM. We spoke with individuals about the amount of research that goes into our projects, as well as the numerous safety considerations that must be made to succeed within the competition. We stressed that iGEM is helping to create a generation of ethical scientists, concerned not only with the function of their projects but also any possible negative implications that could arise and ways of mitigating those possibilities.

It is clear that the iGEM competition is influencing the international stage and gaining notice on a large scale. It is now our job as iGEM participants and scientists to continue to conduct ethical and responsible science, as this is the only way to truly dispel fears. We must also continue to maintain open and honest communication with those who affect policy. Our attendance to this conference was a great first step and we hope that this has opened a line of communication between this forum and iGEM as a whole.