Safety and Training in the Lab
Georgia State University iGEM team works in a Biosafety Level 1 (BSL-1) laboratory. Although there are no known pathogenic risks in BSL-1 laboratories, the following precautions were still taken: wearing gloves at all times, handwashing before entering and exiting the lab, forbidding food/drinks within the lab, tightly regulating access to the lab, and inactivating infectious material via autoclaving and hyperchloric acid (bleach).
Prior to working in the lab, everyone had to undergo safety training and tests, which include: Right-to-Know training, Right-to-Know Chemical Specific training, and Hazardous Waste Generator training. We learned about lab access and rules (including appropriate clothing) biosafety equipment (such as biosafety cabinets), disinfection/sterilization, emergency procedures, and chemicals, fire & electrical safety.
As for the gene gun, we received advice from engineers during our design process who made sure we were following all safety precautions. When we use the gene gun, we will have a protective barrier in place to prevent any injuries in case of a malfunction.
Safety at Home
We cultured some of our algae at home where they were kept in controlled tanks. We did not house any genetically modified algae at our homes, so there is no risk of GMO contamination into the outside world. In addition, we made sure to wash our hands after handling the algae.
Escherichia Coli DH5a competent cells do not pose a risk to human health; they are classified as a Risk Group 1 and are non-pathogenic. Agrobacterium tumefaciens can cause crown gall disease in plants if exposed but all of our Agrobacterium tumefaciens cultures are kept within the lab. Symbiodinium microadriaticum is known to form algal blooms. However, neither S. microadriaticum nor O. Marina can survive the transportation from lab to sea without the aid of humans and these cultures will not leave our lab.
We will not release our modified algal-coral symbiont into the wild during this stage of the research. Nevertheless, if this were to hypothetically happen, we’re not introducing any genes that will translate into foreign protein products. The genes of interest involve fluorescent proteins, heat shock proteins, and antioxidants. These are all products of a normal Symbiodinium, and we’d only be upregulating their production. The implications of this should be analogous to simply growing up a large number of algae without the repercussion of an algal bloom. Because of this, we wouldn’t expect to harm the environment in any way.
When we get to the final stages of our project, our modified algae will be introduced to corals that will be replanted in-field. Before introducing the modified algae to an external environment, we must carefully think about environmental safety and responsibility. We spoke to Dr. Shurin and other researchers at University of San Diego,who were the first to conduct an EPA-approved outdoor experiment using microalgae. They informed us that they had to review Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations and had to fill out a Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Environmental Release Application (TERA) form. The EPA reviews the submitted application and determines if the engineered organism possesses an “unreasonable risk or injury to a human and/or the environment.” We will be sure to be aware of all implications and risks involved and plan to work closely with the EPA in any of our efforts to move outside the lab.