Team:ETHZ Basel/Biology/Safety



Safety first!

What does safety mean to us?

The understanding of safety guidelines, the reflection on related issues and the respect of those practices is tremendously important for us. During the process of our work, we therefore continuously discussed and reasoned about potential ethical and safety problems, which could arise from our project. We always strictly follow safety practices guidelines in the lab and respect all the rules and regulations. But this is not enough. This page represents our reflection on an issue, that too often gets forgotten. We use the iGEM [1] guideline and its key questions for our documentation:

1. Question

Would any of your project ideas raise safety issues in terms of:

  • researcher safety,
  • public safety, or
  • environmental safety?


  • Researcher safety: No. The use of certain chemicals is inevitable for carrying our assays, but we wear gloves, safety googles and a lab coat for protection.
  • Public and environmental safety: No, there is no environmental threat originating from our activities. We exclusively work with non-pathogenic strains. Furthermore, we have special waste containers for biologically and chemically hazardous material and we do not introduce any potentially harmful material into the environment. Even the air in our lab is filtrated before being released.

2. Question

Do any of the new BioBrick parts (or devices) that you made this year raise any safety issues? If yes,

  • Did you document these issues in the Registry?
  • How did you manage to handle the safety issue?
  • How could other teams learn from your experience?


No, our BioBricks are not a matter of concern at all.

3. Question

Is there a local biosafety group, committee, or review board at your institution?

  • If yes, what does your local biosafety group think about your project?
  • If no, which specific biosafety rules or guidelines do you have to consider in your country?


Before starting with the wet lab work, we consulted all relevant sections in the Swiss Federal Constitution and it appears to us that our project does not raise any safety issues. There are a few general (chemical and biological safety) agencies, but these are not enough specialized institutions for evaluating our iGEM research project.

Instead, it seemed reasonable to us, to discuss the project with our instructor Sven Panke, who is a member of the External Advisory Board of Synbiosafe and has therefore much expertise in this area. We together reflected about the safety issues our project could potentially give rise to and after careful evaluation, we came to the conclusion that this does not harm nor the researchers, nor the social or natural environment.

Of course, we additionally take all precautionary measures which are appropriate when working in a laboratory!

4. Question

Do you have any other ideas how to deal with safety issues that could be useful for future iGEM competitions?

  • How could parts, devices and systems be made even safer through biosafety engineering?


A commonly shared concern in biosafety is the idea, that GMO's could be released to the natural environment, where wildtype bacteria could acquire novel pathogenic tools via horizontal gene transfer. Such bacterial strains, providing a powerful toolbox, which could quickly multiply pathogenity, must be designed in such a way, that they can neither survive in a natural environment (outside the lab), nor contaminate it with the engineered sequences, so that their genetic toolbox cannot be spread through evolutionary mechanisms.

Safety considerations in Switzerland and at ETH Zurich

The safety, health and environmental group at ETH (SGU) is one of the most relevant sources when it comes to biosafety and safety in the lab. The group organizes safety training courses for students and staff on a regular basis, which are compulsory to attend for every student, before beginning to work in the lab. During these courses, they are taught which measures must be taken in case of emergency, how to extinct fires (everyone has then to do this!) and what to do and who to call for various incidences. The group hands out a guideline book, in which the course is summarized and all important questions can be quickly looked up. It as well provides emergency numbers. The SGU furthermore hosts various seminars on safety issues, which are free and open for everyone to attend.

All members of the wet laboratory subteam have attended those courses. We are more experienced now than we were before the courses, which is why we appreciate and respect those guidelines even more. When it comes to an emergency, seconds are decisive!


[1] iGEM Safety Page

[2] Swiss Legal Bases Biotechnology

[3] Safety at ETH (german)