Safety Concerns Specific to the Open Lab Project

We have addressed any potential safety issues resulting from the genetic engineering component of the Open Lab project, and since we are just biobricking fluorescent protein genes into pSB1C3, the risks are clearly defined and minimal. What is more interesting to address is the potential risk of democratizing synthetic biology.

The question raised by our work is whether or not the propagation of community labs will pose a threat through deliberate or accidental misuse of the technology that outweighs their potential benefit to society.

In 2010 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released its first report to evaluate the potential risks and benefits of synthetic biology and to make recommendations. Part of that report focused on the participation of the amateur and citizen science community, the ‘DIYbio’ movement.

From the Commission’s website:

The Commission concluded that while the technical challenges of synthetic biology remain daunting, the field is likely to become more decentralized as the relevant tools become increasingly available and affordable-a change that may pose novel challenges with regard to oversight.

"While the 'Do-It-Yourself' community has an important role to play in advancing synthetic biology, we recognize that technical challenges and costs are too high right now for a completely novel organism to be developed in a non-institutional setting,” said Dr. James W. Wagner, Commission Vice Chair and President of Emory University. "We strongly support an open dialogue between DIY groups and the government as we go forward so that scientists and government can discuss the research constraints necessary to protect public safety as the field continues to evolve."

In 2012 the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) in cooperation with the European Commission issued a report that evaluated the risk posed by several new technologies including synthetic biology. They felt that "it is important that efforts to tackle the potential negative implications of advances in biotechnology do not impede beneficial research". The DIYbio community was discussed in this report as well, and it was noted that the "negative framing of the movement by the press has distorted the actual capabilities and risks" but that "a certain level and likely growing level of risk in the medium to long term stemming from activities commonly labeled amateur or garage biology cannot be denied and should be calmly addressed now". They urged citizen science groups to follow basic biosafety standards and waste disposal procedures, pointing out that even a minor adverse event could" ignite public uproar and put pressure on policy-makers to react."

Both reports recommended monitoring of the progress of the DIYbio community and periodic re-evaluation of recommendations.

There are several points to be considered. Both the presidential committee and the UN reports concluded that the capabilities of the average DIYbio practitioner and lab were not sophisticated enough to deliberately or accidentally create a human pathogen. As more and more citizen scientists become more skilled, and the community labs more well-established, the technical capability of the community lab (facilities, equipment, etc.), the skill of the users of the lab (which may depend on the mentorship and training available) and the personal motivations driving the work performed all should be factored into further analysis.

Accidental harm could be caused by not following proper lab procedures. We emphasize safety training in our Open Lab Blueprint website, and provide links to content. DIYbio and the Wilson Center established the website Ask A Biosafety Officer, where citizen scientists can get rapid answers to biosafety questions. At the present time, few community labs have biosafety cabinets and plan to do BSL2 work. Currently all identify themselves as BSL1 facilities. We do not handle human or primate cells, and do not work with human pathogens. The organisms that we work with such as E. coli K-12 would be extremely difficult to engineer into a pathogen accidentally. The establishment of scientific advisory boards (made up of professional biotechnology and biosafety experts), who review projects for safety before a member is accepted, is an additional safeguard that we recommend in out Open Lab Blueprint. Let us assume, for the moment, that the technical capabilities of DIYbio labs and practitioners are at the level of an average graduate student in synthetic biology. Even so, synthetic biology is not easy, as any iGEM team will tell you after failed attempts to engineer their constructs. It is even more difficult to create a pathogen, and more difficult still to weaponize it, according to bioterrorism expert Special Agent Ed You of the FBI. Coupled with the fact that community labs are very social and very public space, it is unlikely that someone bent on harm would choose to train and conduct work in a community lab.

The continuously lowering cost of commercial DNA synthesis will make entry into synthetic biology easier and easier. DNA is everywhere, impossible to physically control and monitor, and the techniques for manipulating it are decades old and common knowledge. The UNICRI report proposes that what is needed is to "fostering a worldwide culture of awareness and responsibility in biotechnology" and "linking all levels of society in a comprehensive and systematic way". The most important step we can take is to establish a strong culture of shared responsibility in the local, national and international community engaged in synthetic biology.

Community labs represent an opportunity to educate more and more citizen scientists who would be able to distinguish between harmless research and real threat ("If you see something, say something"). Concerns that young users will abuse the technology for the fun of it seem to be unfounded, since we have not had any incidents like this in the five years that the movement has been active. However, we would submit that the urge to create or make and impact on society can be productively channeled into positive projects when the user is incorporated into a community lab group and is surrounded by peers who are doing cool projects with shared equipment following the DIYbio code of ethics established in 2012.