Team:Glasgow/Human Practices


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Policy And Practice

We took a number of approaches in considering the potential impacts of our project. From the many potential applications of our switch, the main question we posed was regarding Biodesalination: Would the general public be comfortable with using our bacteria-desalinated water? The following section describes a more factual and theoretical approach, but click here for more information on our public outreach events at the Glasgow Science Centre.
We've also submitted a piece of artwork for the special "Best Supporting Artwork" award. This was a comic strip featuring our team mascot, Wilkins, which told the story of our project in a way that was colourful and simple to understand. It can be found here.


Biodesalination is becoming of increasing interest as availability of freshwater decreases around the world. Freshwater only consists of 2.5% of the worlds’ water with only < 1% percent available for use. Many countries around the globe rely on desalination for their freshwater. The need for a low energy desalination method becomes more apparent since 40% of the worlds’ population live areas that are dry or semi-dry and experience droughts.

Figure 1: Map displaying the relative "water strain" around the globe. Image from

However, current methods of desalination are energy intensive and therefore expensive. Two widely used methods for desalination are thermal and reverse osmosis. Thermal approaches involve evaporating salt water and then condensing it as purified freshwater whereas reverse osmosis approaches involve forcing the water through various membranes in order to remove the salt.

The cost to fill an Olympic swimming pool (2500m3) with desalinated water from seawater using a thermal approach by an average sized desalination plant can range from £1500 to £3100 and for a similar sized plant to do the same but by using membrane technology it would cost £750 to £2575. A slightly cheaper alternative as opposed to desalinating seawater is desalinating brackish water which contains less salt. But however, this is still costly.

We surveyed public opinion about Synthetic Biology and its possible use in desalination at a number of events. The results are summarised below.

Along with asking individuals about their opinion on the use of GMO, we asked them about their level of knowledge of synthetic biology. 58% of individuals rated their knowledge of synthetic biology as a 3 or less, on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being never have heard of the term and 10 being have a PhD in it). This correlates with comments from these individuals that they felt they didn’t know enough to make a decision on the subject. There was also comments raised about moral and ethical issues with GMO i.e. that we shouldn’t be messing with organisms like this. Although participants of this survey appeared to understand why we would use GMO as a way to feed the worlds’ increasing population.


87% of the worlds’ freshwater supply is used in agriculture. This is rather essential especially in dry areas where without the human intervention of watering the crops, they would not survive in these environments.
Individuals appeared to be more agreeable to the use of water cleaned by bacteria for agricultural purposes.

Drinking Water
When asked about how they felt drinking water cleaned by bacteria, individuals were unsure about it. If the water were to be used for drinking purposes, the water would have to be cleaned to a higher specification. The lack of certainty among individuals seemed to be on the whole attributed to lack of information and knowledge about GMO and synthetic biology. Another determining factor appeared to be that the level of efficiency will be the same as that of current methods.

Every individual in the UK uses on average 150 litres of water per day, with only 4% of this being used for drinking water. Therefore, every day each person in the UK uses 144 litres of water for other household uses. This includes activities such as showering, clothes washing and flushing the toilet. To put this in perspective, the average individual uses 52, 560 litres of water per year. So on average the UK population would at an estimate consume 23.4 billion litres of water on household uses per year.

Considering that only 11% individuals disagreed with the use of bacteria-cleaned water in the household, it seems that there could be potential to market the end product of the biodesalination process for household use. However, to be certain of this a wider-reaching survey would have to be conducted.

Applying our Switch to Biodesalination - the Science
E. coli is not very salt tolerant so we would transform our switch into a halophile such as a species of cyanobacteria. However, there is still a problem as halophiles manage to survive at high concentrations by expelling salt. This is in opposition to what we require the bacteria to do to desalinate water as our idea depends on encouraging the bacteria to absorb salt.
We sought advice from a research group (Dr Anna Amtmann and colleagues) within the University who work on biodesalination in collaboration with the University of Sheffield, Newcastle University and Robert Gordon University. Dr Antmann works on encouraging cyanobacteria to absorb salt. At the University of Sheffield the research group in collaboration work on the separation of cells. Dr Catherine Gandy and Dr Jaime Amezaga work on the public opinion of biodesalination at Newcastle University and if we were to continue on with this project we would love to work in collaboration with them in conducting a wider-reaching public survey on biodesalination. Furthermore, if we were to continue with this project, one of our focuses would be informing the public more about GMO.

The requirements for microbial biodesalination are –

  1. A cyanobacteria strain that can grow without the addition of nutrients other than what is present in the natural environment in large quantities. The idea of Dr. Anna Amtmann and her group is for this to be a natural process carried out by phototrophic cyanobacteria.
  2. Another problem that must be conquered is inhibiting the expulsion of salt ions from the cell.
  3. There would also need to be a system for control of expression of salt uptake genes, which is where our switch comes in.
  4. Furthermore, there needs to be a system to separate the cells, which is also where our switch could be of use if the gas vesicle production could be enhanced to allow the cells to float well enough to be separated.

To demonstrate the steps that need to be taken for this technology to be used for biodesalination on an industrial scale, the stage gate approach will be used. We have applied this system as it provides opportunities for reflection. We also wished to try to incorporate the concept of Responsible Innovation into our project as much as possible and we believed that the stage gating process allowed for the consideration of wider moral responsibilities and for maximum engagement with members of the public.

The Stage Gate approach consists of both stages and gates. The stages involve data gathering and acting whereas the gates allow for an opportunity to reflect over the data gathered and to see if anything needs to be altered.

Gate 1 - The Idea
Idea – Integrase switch for controllable gas vesicle production


  • Switch applications – How will it help the wider synthetic biology community?
  • Will it be replacing an existing technology?
  • What problems might we encounter? GM opposition
  • Lab safety:
    • GM risk assessment must be completed in compliance with the University’s policies
    • iGEM safety form to be completed
    • Dry lab risk assessments for measuring procedures completed
    • COSHH forms also completed

Stage 1 – Developing the Basic Technology and Assessing Needs

The Switch

  • Create a working switch, identifiable with RFP/ GFP
  • Flipping in the presence of arabinose as proof of concept

The Vesicles

  • Identify the minimum proteins required for gas vesicle production
  • Use modelling to see if flagella knock-out is required
  • Characterise for future users – critical pressure, floatation speed etc.

Switch Controlled Vesicle Production

  • Get switch to flip upon given stimulus to turn on gas vesicle production


  • Talk to the public gauge reactions to GM products at Science Centre events
  • Open communications with synthetic biologists and people in the industry from each of the further parts of stage 3 [e.g. for biodesalination – Scottish Water and charities such as Water Aid].
    • Can they see any potential in our product?
    • Are there features to be added or removed for it to be useful?

Gate 2 – Choosing an Application for the Switch


Based on the data from communications, reflect on the benefits and perception of each potential application.

  • Did one in particular illicit a more favourable response?

Lab Safety
  • Receive and update the GM and general lab risk assessments to include the new organisms and parts

Stage 2A – Focusing on Biodesalination: “Testing the Water”


  • Preform a more in-depth analysis of the impaction of our desalination method to include other countries
  • Conduct a thorough investigation of the laws encompassing the products


  • Model the uptake of salt and its relationship to other variables. How much is needed?
  • Insert the desalination mechanisms into our E. coli or use it to test each of the mechanisms separately
  • Conduct preliminary tests to see whether E. coli takes up salt on a lab scale
  • Revise and update model based on lab tests


  • Organise desalination/ GM debates and a wider reaching public questionnaire on using our method to desalinate water for drinking and agricultural purposes
  • Enter into more in-depth discussions with water companies to include costs, true viability and quantities

Gate 3A – Pick a Desalination Focus (Drinking, Agriculture or Industry)


  • Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each desalination water area. Is there one that we should focus on first?
  • Discuss data gathered and change direction of project if necessary

Stage 3A – Developing the Final Technology


  • Test switch in a more suitable organism (phototrophic halophile e.g. a species of Cyanobacteria)
  • Conduct extensive modelling on the efficiency of desalination


  • Inform and interact with public about our technology

Gate 4A – Is it Suitable for Industrial Use?


  • Discuss results of efficiency tests of switch in Cyanobacteria
  • Consider if suitability of the organism for industrial processes

Stage 4A – Scaling Up


  • Upscale experiments to industrial scale i.e. use vats
  • Use proper seawater/ brackish water to desalinate
  • Update the model for a larger scale process


  • Open talks with governments to discuss plans and permissions


  • Open communications with potential stockholders and supply them with the data we have so far

Gate 5 – Consider the Future of our Switch


  • Consider all data gathered thus far and ensure that every contingency is planned for before commercialisation
  • Have all the safety requirements been fulfilled?
  • Consider wider uses of the switch


  • Make any changes that need to be made now!


Amezaga, J. M. et al., 2014. Biodesalination: A Case Study for Applications of Photosynthetic Bacteria in Water Treatment. Plant Physiology. 164(4): 1661-1676.
Human Appropriation of the World's Fresh Water Supply, 2000. University of Michigan. [online]. Available at:
Karagiannis, I. C., Soldatos, P. G., 2008. Water desalination cost literature: review and assessment. Desalination. 223(1-3): 448-456.
Water – The Facts, 2012. Waterwise. [online]. Available at:


Meet the Expert
We attended the “Meet the Expert” event held by the Glasgow Science Centre on the 5th and 6th of July which gave members of the public the chance to meet members of the scientific community and discuss their research. Somehow they thought we were experts!

The event was well attended and gave us the chance to interact with many members of the public. It was a great opportunity to discuss with them what they thought about our idea. We were also really interested to get their opinions on water treatment and water usage around the world. The team answered any queries they had about GM organisms and the safety of different processes.

We also has a few fun activities that were intended for children, but were enjoyed by adults and iGEMmers alike! The feedback was generally positive, and members of the public were on the whole excited by our idea. Our poster for the weekend (in .pdf format) is available here.

We went back to the Glasgow Science Centre on the 26th of September but this time however, we were armed with results. The event was called the Explorathon which was to celebrate European Researchers’ Night in Glasgow. Entry to the Science Centre was free and members of the public, from the very young to the ‘young once’ were out in force.

We had an amazing time again talking with members of the public about their thoughts on water usage and GMO. We loved telling the public about our project. This evening was spent less surveying public opinion of water usage, as it’s not the topic people like to discuss at 9 in the evening when there’s beer being passed around, but it gave us a great opportunity to chat with the children about what we were doing, introducing them to the hero of the hour, ‘Wilkins’. A great evening was had by all.