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Risk Assessment

Unlike some other nematodes, Caenorhabditis elegans is fully free-living and functions primarily as a digester of detritus, posing no threat except to the microbes which it eats. The worms are non-pathogenic organisms, and Biosafety level 1 practices are simple and safe; working with C. elegans carries a very low level of risk. Accordingly, concerns about researcher, public, and environmental safety are minimal. C. elegans can be safely cultured in a BSL-1 laboratory1, just like bacteria and yeast.

The engineered C. elegans do not effect their environments, as our work focuses on proteins with intracellular effects that have no significant catalytic role. Thus, a malfunction in our BioBrick parts would pose minimal threat to humans, laboratory equipment, or other organisms. Further, our alterations do not grant the worms any advantages over the wildtype, making the spread of these alleles unlikely, should engineered worms be released into the environment: in fact, the high-copy extrachromosomal arrays used in microinjection induce stress on the worm and consequently lower its biological fitness.

In principle, our work does pose some long-term risks in that it aims to make more advanced forms of synthetic biology more readily accessible, as well as providing a chassis that could potentially be used to create more dangerous projects such as catalytic mechanisms. These risks naturally arise from the advancement of the field of synthetic biology, and although they necessitate dilligence and thoughtfulness from the research community as the field develops, they do not represent undue or extraordinary threats.

By itself, our project poses no threat to its environment greater than that presented by the standard E. coli chassis—in fact, even less, since nematodes are not capable of horizontal gene transfer and would disseminate engineered genes more slowly.

Drs. Ian Chin-Sang, Kenton Ko, and Nancy Martin were three of the team’s Faculty Advisors this year, and provided the team with lab space in which we conducted all of our wet work. They are all members of the Queen’s Biohazards Committee and ensured that we worked within the appropriate biosafety regulations.

Footnotes and Citations

1: Biosafety Guidelines and Levels of Containment. Canadian Council on Animal Care. Accessed on 2010-06-22.