Would any of your project ideas raise safety issues in terms of researcher safety, public safety, or environmental safety?
Our project does not pose any safety issues to researchers, the public or the environment. The strain of E.coli we are using, DH5α, is harmless. GENOMIKON involves taking E. coli into public institutions, such as high schools, meaning that societal perceptions are important. Society is often apprehensive when it comes to E. coli, as it has the stereotype of always posing a health risk. Therefore it is important to educate individuals. We have created encyclopaedia articles with descriptive images and videos for students and teachers to view, explaining why our experiments are safe. Safety procedures such as wearing gloves and disinfecting surfaces and agar plates with 10% bleach are also outlined in the articles to ensure a safe learning experience for the students.
Do any of the new BioBrick parts (or devices) that you made this year raise any safety issues?
None of the parts that we constructed pose any safety risks. Each Brick is perfectly safe to transform into any bacterium.
Is there a local biosafety group, committee, or review board at your institution?
The office of Environment Health & Safety is designated to look after all biosafety issues at the University of Alberta. Our designate is Kim Ellison from the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology (MMI). She is always available while we are in the lab, should we have an incident or require material safety data sheets. The Department also orchestrated a mandatory “Safety in the Lab” training session for our team members prior to beginning work in the wet lab. We are proud to have the support of the Department of MMI and Environment Health & Safety. They have approved our laboratory methods and space in addition to our project in general.
Do you have any other ideas how to deal with safety issues that could be useful for future iGEM competitions?
A significant part of promoting synthetic biology will be educating the media on how our practices are safe. Any opportunity for iGEM teams to explain their project to non-scientists is beneficial. Perhaps a gold medal human practices requirement could be for each team to tour a media representative (for example a journalist) through their lab and thoroughly explain the safety procedures in place as well as their project. In this way, myths regarding synthetic biology’s negative stereotypes can be changed.
How could parts, devices and systems be made even safer through biosafety engineering?
A common characteristic of bacteria is the ability to transfer genes between other bacteria. Teams should take this into consideration when submitting their parts. Genes should be made so that they can only function if there are specific conditions in place. Although iGEM only deals with low risk organisms, teams should also make sure that there are no dangerous substances being produced as side products that could cause mutations to occur. One way to test this could be to instate that every team complete an AMES test.
Safety in Our Lab
Safety in laboratories is a top priority at the University of Alberta and for our team. The office of Environment Health and Safety looks after all safety regulations. All of our team members received safety training prior to experimentation. Measures were taken in order to maintain the safety of our team members and also not to contaminate our experiments. The following protocols were followed by our team members who contributed in the lab:
- Procedures that had the potential to generate aerosols were performed in the biosafety cabinet
- At least one lab technician from the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology was always on hand while we were in the lab to answer any questions or to assist in the instance of an emergency
- Latex or nitrile gloves were always worn
- A specific bench in our lab was delegated to handle ethidium bromide
- No food or drinks were consumed
- There were separate bins for broken glass, versus contaminated disposal, and non-contaminated disposal
- All test tubes were systematically labeled with the date, experiment, and name
- Bench surfaces were wiped with 10% bleach
Safety in the Classroom
Our team has investigated the safety issues in the classroom. We wanted to know, should GENOMIKON be implemented in public schools, would be accepted under the existing safety policies of school boards? Most people view E. coli as something to be feared. GENOMIKON will challenge this misconception by educating students new to the field.
The E. coli that is included in the kit is as risk one organism, strain DH5α. This strain differs from the pathogenic strain, O157:H7, in the following ways:
- endA1 mutation inactivates endonuclease
- hsdR17 mutation eliminates restriction endonuclease in EcoK1 system (methylase still present)
- Δ(lacZ)M15 allows for blue-white screening
- recA1 mutation inactivates homologous recombination
The take home message for the students is that there are multiple strains of E. coli and the one they are using is not the kind that causes food poisoning. More specifically, the strain of E. coli used by GENOMIKON is DH5α and is classified as a biosafety level of 1 (the lowest).
Although the strain of E. coli used in GENOMIKON is classified as a low risk organism, there is still the potential risk of unintended contamination. Teachers and students can reduce this risk by realizing the hazards involved in managing micro-organisms as well as learning proper handling, storage, and disposal techniques. Following are a few simple ways to ensure safety in the classroom as well as to decrease contamination of the experiments:
- All students and teachers should wear latex gloves while participating in the experiments. Protective eyewear is also recommended.
- No food or drink should be permitted in the classroom while E. coli are present. Application of cosmetics is also not advised.
- Once E. coli has been streaked, the plates should be taped closed. Subsequent observations can be made through the cover.
- All surfaces should be wiped with disinfectant (see below for details).
- Hand washing should be conducted before and after handling bacteria as well as prior to leaving the classroom.
Bleach is GENOMIKON’s disinfectant of choice since it is effective, easily accessible, and inexpensive. All related biological waste or spills can be handled by a disinfecting bleach solution with a concentration of 10%. Bleach of this concentration is commonly found in grocery stores and is useful in that it kills the widest range of pathogens of any inexpensive disinfectant, is extremely powerful against viruses and bacteria at room temperature, and breaks down quickly into harmless components (primarily table salt and oxygen). With this said, caution should be taken to ensure that bleach does not come into direct skin contact or ingested. Once the spill or surface has been wiped clean, the paper towels should be put in a plastic bag and deposited treated as regular garbage.