Team:Baltimore BioCrew/Human Practices

2020 Baltimore Biocrew

Human Practices


We consulted with a wide range of experts and stakeholders to determine how our work can be responsible and good for the world. The goal of our project is to slow climate change and help the environment, but it was important to consider all aspects of this issue and our team’s approach to addressing it.

Scientific, environmental, legal, ethical, and economic interests all informed our project design. Through our conversations with marine scientists, an environmental policymaker, a climate ethicist, and members of the fishing industry, we were able to understand the needs of each group and their concerns – including preserving aquatic species, maintaining water quality, and addressing the rising global temperature.

Summaries of our consultations and our goals for each are presented here. Below the consultation summaries, we describe how we responded to the discussions and integrated the takeaways into our project.

Skip to Integrated Human Practices

Environmental Policies Consultations

Dr. Jim George

Jim George is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Water and Science Administration, Maryland Department of Environment. His current activities include strategic development for the Water and Science Administration and development of a statewide water resources plan. A current area of activity is advancing the reuse of reclaimed municipal wastewater. This work is trying to guide administration future paths to meet needs of the water, energy, and food network. He used to work for 12 years for the Water Quality Restoration and Accountability program which implemented policies to regulate loads put in water and established Maryland's Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) for the Chesapeake Bay.

Why we reached out to them & our goals

The reason we reached out to him is because of his knowledge of stakeholders and legal implications of using water for science. We believed that for our project that we should understand the laws surrounding hypothetically implementing our project. Understanding the proper procedures that scientists have to go through in order to accomplish helping marine life is necessary for us to undertake our project.

  • Questions we asked: arrow_downward
    1. What goes into the process in identifying what can be released into waters? How will the policy come about? Who is involved with this decision making?
    2. What is the process when scientists want to release an genetically modified organism in the water for the great good? What are the steps to allow the release in this organism?
    3. Do you know of any examples of when something was released into the environment and had unintended consequences? How were those consequences dealt with?
    4. Who makes the rules about what can be released into the environment, the EPA or the Maryland Department of Environment (state or federal)?
    5. What are the range of potential penalties or consequences for releasing something harmful into the environment? Who enforces these penalties?
    6. What are the consequences of an uncontrolled phytoplankton bloom caused by the addition of iron into their environment?
    7. What is the process when scientists want to release an genetically modified organism in the water for the great good? What are the steps to allow the release in this organism?
    8. Let’s say that we want to actually release what we found into the environment or propose this experiment and share this knowledge. What would be the steps to propose this to the government or the Maryland Department of Environment?


There are several factors that we would need to consider to make sure that our project was responsible and good for the world.

  1. We would need a permit from the Maryland Department of Environment in order to release something (pilot or experimental).
  2. We should consider the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) law that requires anenvironmental impact statement before things can be released.
  3. Sometimes, factors that seem completely unrelated can have impacts on each other. We would need to look into ways that our project could affect on the environment. (For example, we would need to try to model ecosystems that have species and food chain relationships to see what could be disrupted by genetically engineered phytoplankton. Also, there are long-term factors that have to be considered.)

Some potential Consequences of Phytoplankton growth are:

  1. Too much growth could lead to less sunlight reaching deeper parts of the Chesapeake Bay, which is home to vital plants such as seagrass. This could prevent animals like crabs and fish from feeding on them and lessen their population.
  2. Changes in the environment caused by our project could be irreversible
  3. There are ussues related to a slippery slope causing a chain effect on population levels of other organisms

If we want to continue in the future, we should call the Maryland Department of Environment and make a proposal to them, with data about our project, and then get certified.

Environmental Research Consultations

Dr. Allen Place

Dr. Allen Place is a professor at University of Maryland Institute of Marine & Environmental Technology. His area of expertise is elucidation of the molecular mechanisms that permit organisms to adapt to unique diets, environments, and interactions (symbiosis) and Molecular basis of sex determination.

Why we reached out to them & our goals

We reached out to him because he is knowledgeable about genetically modifying marine species and the aquatic environments in the Baltimore/Bay area and algal blooms. He was our first expert to help guide us on what types of phytoplankton we should think about. Our goal was to understand what types of parts to characterize and techniques to incorporate.

  • Questions we asked: arrow_downward
    1. What type of work do you do with model organisms? Do you do any genetic engineering with them?
    2. Does it make sense to engineer phytoplankton at all or should we engineer another organism? Which types of phytoplankton get genetically engineered the most?
    3. Do all phytoplankton photosynthesize? What is the balance between phyto and zooplankton? Can something be both?
    4. How do phytoplankton use iron? If we do add iron, could there be another limiting element?
    5. How are phytoplankton concentrations changing and why?
    6. Why are there high nutrient low chlorophyll areas where there should be lots of phytoplankton but aren’t, and is low iron responsible?
    7. What are the effects of warming temperatures on phytoplankton concentrations?
    8. Where would adding or bringing back phytoplankton do the most good?
    9. What other organisms live at the same ocean level as phytoplankton? What could the effect be on different levels of the ocean if phytoplankton increase?
    10. What is the difference between phytoplankton sinking to the bottom and decomposing before they do?
    11. If we change the way that organisms incorporate or use iron, what kinds of effects might that have?
    12. How long do phytoplankton live and is there a particular season when they die off?


Dr. Place advised us to use cyanobacteria because they’re easier to genetically modify. He helped us to decide which organism to modify.

Recommended reading: “Synthetic Biology Toolbox for Controlling Gene Expression in the Cyanobacterium Synechococcus sp. strain PCC 7002”, Markley et al., ACS Synth. Biol. 2015. We decided to use this type of cyanobacterium

What we learned about natural light intensity causing damage suggests that we should consider what light intensity we use in the lab.

Eukaryotic phytoplankton are hard to engineer. They have membrane-bound compartments/organelles and can have very big genomes (up to 88,000 genes). This kind of work is done primarily in high latitudes with the hope of bringing down CO2 levels.

It is important to maintain intracellular iron levels

We should consider algae blooms and how to prevent them. In general, open oceans have low amounts of nutrients, engineered algae and iron supplementation have been attempted to this end.

Most organic carbon has not made its way into the deep ocean

Gabriel Browning

Gabriel Browning is a Master's Student at University of South Florida College of Marine Science. He was a research chemist for American Peat Technology, LLC He studies the biogeochemical cycling of trace metals in the oceans, with specific focus on their organic speciation. His project uses humic substances, a terrestrial degradation product, as a model ligand to better understand the types of ligands that interact with and bind iron. He wants to continue to learn about what types of organic molecules bind with iron, we will gain a better picture of how iron cycles throughout the world’s oceans, which is important to understand because of the critical role that iron plays in controlling primary productivity in the ocean.

Why we reached out to them & our goals

We reached out to him because he is knowledgeable in ways iron is used by organisms in the ocean. His input on understanding the environmental impacts of scientific interventions will be helpful for our project. We wanted to see if he could guide us more on the biology of how we will engineer our organism to better pick up or use iron.

  • Questions we asked: arrow_downward
    1. How is concentration of iron in the ocean measured?
    2. What is the concentration of Fe2+ and Fe3+ in the ocean and is most of it used by organic life?
    3. Why is most of the ocean iron in the Fe2+ form? Is this the form that most phytoplankton uptake?
    4. What does it mean for iron to be bioavailable to phytoplankton (cyanobacteria or algae) specifically regarding characteristics such as oxidation state, stability, crystalline structure, protein binding, and solubility? Is most of the iron dissolved in the ocean Bioavailable?
    5. What is the difference between iron oxidizing organisms and iron reducing organisms? Which one produces bioavailable iron? Why are iron oxides produced from iron- oxidizing bacteria more bioavailable than iron oxides from iron dust?
    6. What model organism do you use in your research? (e.g. bacteria, phytoplankton, etc.). If you have experience expressing proteins in phytoplankton, what promoter systems have worked well for you?
    7. Is most of the dissolved iron associated with ligands and what are some examples of these ligands?
    8. How do metal binding ligands (like siderophores) that can be present outside of organisms interact with the wide variety of cellular organisms in the ocean?
    9. How important is it for phytoplankton that the bioavailable iron reside in the photic zone?


Iron concentration in the ocean measured by:

  1. ICPMS – Induced Coupled Plasma Mass
  2. Spectrometry – generally used to provide a total bulk number of iron and breaks the sample into atoms

Iron reduction from iron(III) to iron(II) is one of the processes by which a lot of biota in the ocean take up iron. They use reductases to do this.

Most iron in the ocean is bound by organic ligands.

Iron(II) is most available to phytoplankton.

Environmental Ethics Consultations

Donald Brown

Donald Brown is a faculty as a Scholar in Residence for Sustainability Ethics and Law through Widener’s Environmental Law and Sustainability Center. He taught interdisciplinary courses on climate change and sustainable development at Penn State University. He previously worked as program manager for United Nations Organizations at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of International Environmental Policy. He represented the agency on U.S. delegations to the United Nations negotiating climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development issues. He currently researches and presents public presentations on climate change, ethics and sustainability. He will be a great mentor in directing us on ethical questions we must think about our project impacting the environment.

Why we reached out to them & our goals

We needed to understand more ethical implications of our project and see how beneficial to the world it is. We wanted to see if he could guide us on to make this do more good than bad to the world. He will be a great mentor in directing us on ethical questions we must think about our project impacting the environment.

  • Questions we asked: arrow_downward
    1. Where do you draw the line on whether a genetically modified organism which is intended for the greater good is allowed to be released to the public?
    2. What are some current ethical issues in the way the US is trying to prevent climate change?
    3. What have you learned in your career that could be something we need to keep in mind for our project?
    4. Who would you identify as the main stakeholders for a project like ours and the rank?
    5. There are a number of approaches being taken to combat climate change. What are your thoughts on the value of treating the effects of climate change (i.e., reactionary) versus mitigating the root/causes of climate change?
    6. Could you explain the interplay between scientific data and the economic interests of companies (that are the major contributors to climate change) and how these two factors affect climate change policy?
    7. What are the ethical issues we should consider when solutions to climate change may risk disturbing ecosystems such as growing phytoplankton to reduce carbon emissions? Are there lessons we can learn from similar cases like the effect of wind turbines on bird populations?
    8. What would you say is the current state of public perception and attitude towards climate change? Which ethical considerations surrounding climate change do you think more people should be aware of?
    9. Are there any particularly good resources or experiments that we should look out for that have similar ethical issues that we may have to deal with in our project?
    10. How has ethics slowly been involved to be a key factor in many environmental considerations? What is the current process like? Who is involved in making ethical decisions?


No known controversy exists around genetically modified organisms used to increase phytoplankton populations.

Climate change is mainly caused by developed countries, but mostly affects developing countries. Therefore, the affected people in developing countries cannot protect themselves by petitioning their own governments. Instead, they must rely on the ethics of wealthy countries.

Acknowledging some of the problems that are part of climate change solutions is not as important as recognizing the far greater threat that climate change itself poses. No solution is perfect.

Stakeholder Consultations

James Johnson

Jim George is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Water and Science Administration, Maryland Department of Environment. His current activities include strategic development for the Water and Science Administration and development of a statewide water resources plan. A current area of activity is advancing the reuse of reclaimed municipal wastewater. This work is trying to guide administration future paths to meet needs of the water, energy, and food network. He used to work for 12 years for the Water Quality Restoration and Accountability program which implemented policies to regulate loads put in water and established Maryland's Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) for the Chesapeake Bay. He participates on:

  • The Advisory Panel member of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council
  • International Pacific Halibut Commission Management Strategy Advisory Board and Conference Board member
  • Member of Washington State Maritime Trades (AFL-CIO)
  • Board of Directors Member - The Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial

Why we reached out to them & our goals

James Johnson is a stakeholder in our project because his line of work depends on marine life. We wanted to see what a stakeholder thinks about the implications of our project in order to see if it’s good for the public.

  • Questions we asked: arrow_downward
    1. What policies most impact your work life? And how do you guys work together to try to advocate for yourself?
    2. What does your fisherman union do? And what are they standing for? How important is this for you and your union?
    3. What is your view on organizations like us who do scientific research to help aquatic life? How do you think that our project will impact your line of work if implemented? Is there anything you would like to suggest we change or think about? Who else should we be talking to? What else should we be doing?
    4. Are there any policies that you wish would be implemented to help your job? Is there anything that you would wish that politicians or scientists think about before they make decisions that may impact your line of work?
    5. What keeps you motivated to work within representing the fishing industry when there are so many environmental issues?


Many of the major environmental impacts of the fishing industry are not known to the general public. As a result, the public is also often not aware of the steps being taken by the fishing industry to address these factors.

It’s essential to identify and work with all stakeholders to address a problem and be effective at implementing change.

Scientists and frontline stakeholders (for example, those in the fishing industry) can help each other by working together. Often, those working at the frontline have a deep understanding of an issue and can provide insight, but they lack the data to back up their anecdotal experiences. Researchers can be guided by their insights and experiences. Similarly, scientific findings can be used by those working at the frontline to help improve things for those most directly affected by a problem.

Integrated Human Practices

Integrating scientific ideas into our project design

Early on, we took into consideration a wide variety of phytoplankton types to engineer and hadn’t made a decision yet. We incorporated Dr. Allen Place’s suggestion to think about the difficulty of genetically modifying the organism we choose, and he directed us to a paper called “Synthetic Biology Toolbox for Controlling Gene Expression in the Cyanobacterium Synechococcus sp. strain PCC 7002” which discussed previous work involving genetically engineered cyanobacteria. Based on our conversations with him and our research, we decided that cyanobacteria should be the organism we use to insert our seven genes into after cloning them in E. coli.

Our conversation with Gabriel Browning also gave us a lot of information in the early stages of our project. He gave us clear explanations of iron cycling in the ocean and iron uptake in phytoplankton. Based on this information, we focused on certain groups of genes as we thought about candidates for our project. Additionally, our introductory class about phytoplankton and climate change incorporated teachings from both of these experts on cyanobacteria and the importance of iron in the ocean.

Finally, water policy advisor Jim George emphasized the importance of regulating phytoplankton growth to us. He warned us of some of the potential consequences of phytoplankton overgrowth, such as insufficient sunlight reaching deeper parts of the ocean, which would harm the growth of vital plants like seagrass that other animals feed on. To address this concern, our team realized the need for a genetic switch to keep the growth of new phytoplankton under control. The team is improving upon an iron-sensing promoter system, making it more sensitive to increases in iron levels. When used upstream of our set of genes, this promoter would make sure that phytoplankton growth is only stimulated when iron concentrations are very low.

Building on the need for more public awareness and education

Through our interviews with climate ethicist Donald Brown and water policymakers Jim George and James Johnson, we learned that the general public isn’t well informed about synthetic biology, global warming, the marine environment, and related biological research. We took this into account and created a series of social media posts and a virtual class about what the field of synthetic biology covers, its significance in this society, how it relates and affects the general public, ethical concerns, relevant advances in the field, how viewers can help fight climate change, and how phytoplankton affect their environment. We encouraged user input via questionnaires and quizzes asking about what their hopes for the synthetic biology field are and asking if they knew when man made climate change would cause half of Earth’s species to go extinct.

Social Media

In order to proceed in the most effective way possible with our phytoplankton project, we spoke to multiple professionals for feedback on many aspects. After conversations with Dr. Allen Pace and Gabriel Browning, who is studying marine science and iron cycling, the Human Practices team realized that the public was not well informed on the issue of global warming or marine environments, and additionally, members of communities who would be affected by the outcomes of a project were not usually well informed about these projects. In order to combat this, we thought it would be vital to teach the public about background information relevant to our project and keep them updated on our work, asking questions to collect feedback and maintain engagement. We have done so by creating social media posts on a regular basis to reach as many people as possible, and we post on multiple platforms to inform a diverse group about what we are working on.

Through the use of our social media posts, the Human Practices team has shown that our project is good for the world by informing the public about the dangers of global warming and the role that synthetic biology approaches could serve in decreasing factors that contribute to global warming.

We have spent months putting information relating to our project into an easily understandable format to keep our audience interested in significant information- information that not only relates to our project, but to the broader topic of climate change as well. We have helped an increasing number of people become informed on climate change over the course of our project so that they can formulate their own informed opinions on the issue. It is clear that this has been done successfully based off of the rising number of people who view our posts as well as the results from our polls and quizzes.

Because we have provided the public with unbiased information, which they have retained based on the results of our social media feedback, a larger audience will understand how the implementation of our bioengineered phytoplankton would affect the environment. Having more informed people who can advocate for such a change in their community or on a national level could either help or hinder the implementation of our altered phytoplankton in large bodies of water, such as the Chesapeake Bay. Because our primary audience is people who rely on the Bay, they would raise concerns for further analysis of the ethics behind our project, as well as safety concerns.


Class Objective: Students have gained a full understanding of what phytoplankton is and why it’s important. Students have understood how they’ve impacted the environment and how they could help in the future.

How did your Human Practices work inform and shape your project at different stages?

Majority of our class, What to Do About CO₂, focuses on the background behind our project. Units 1 and 2 focus on how the environment works and the Importance of phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is the species our project focuses on. By teaching the student about its habitat and anatomy of phytoplankton, along with the oceanic environment, student were able to understand our purpose behind focusing on the phytoplankton population. Units 3 and 4 focused on the effects of climate change in the ocean and the phytoplankton population. Through a series of discussions, videos, and simulations, students were able to understand the role phytoplankton have in decreasing pollutants from the water, and supplying approximately 50% of the world’s oxygen. We furthered their understanding by having them calculate the number of breaths they take a day that phytoplankton are responsible for. By doing so, we also furthered their understanding in one of the goals of our project, increasing the phytoplankton population. Students have learned about the possible solutions they could make towards the future by delving into the world of biosynthetic engineering and greenhouse gas remission.

We discussed doing a pre-test and post-test for our class with the leadership at BUGSS. We also talked with Dr. Justice Walker, a researcher in the field of science education, about how to design an effective survey. With Dr. Walker, we discussed and provided feedback on several science- and education-related surveys aimed at a general audience. These discussions gave us good perspective for gathering information from our own students. The results of our pre- and post-tests are below:

Pre-Test and Post-Test Results
Pre-Test and Post-Test results for students who took our class

How did you decide which needs or values to prioritize in your project’s design? What compromises, if any, did you choose to make and why?

During the development of our class, we had to consider many significant factors. Not only did we have to create a class that would be interesting for middle schoolers, we also had to incorporate synthetic biology, the importance of phytoplankton, and climate change. In our initial draft, we considered the purpose of the Biocrew’s work. We wanted to make a resourceful class where students are encouraged to take action just like our project. We highlighted this value in our last unit called “Why It Matters.” After explaining how phytoplankton populations are being affected by climate change, we encouraged students to advocate for climate change and finding creative solutions using problem-solving skills. For example, one of our students came up with a creative solution to grow plants on the roof of cars as a way for releasing more oxygen in the air. On the other hand, we did have to make some compromises such as removing material from our initial curriculum. Due to the lack of time and resources, we were unable to implement specific experiments and videos. To make up for the lost material, we still made sure to discuss them with the class.

How did your team “close the loop” between what was designed and what was desired?

We closed the loop between what was designed and what was desired by collectively determining which topics students would enjoy the most. The primary focus was phytoplankton, so the material on that topic was heavy. Taking action and climate were significant as well. We didn’t have much material about the ocean environment and marine ecosystems because they were the least important. That topic was only included to create context and background about phytoplankton’s role in the ocean. If we had a longer class time, we probably would have heavy material on all topics included in the class.