Team:MSP-Maastricht/Human Practices

Human Practices



Without discourse of scientists there are no great inventions, and without acceptance by the public, great inventions won’t get used. Therefore, we put large effort into an integrated approach that takes into account that all parts of society need to work together and are not isolated from each other

When we started to design our project we did not want to just solve a pervasive problem, but we also wanted to do it right. This project needed to be more than just a solution, it had to be the solution that was the most responsible, ethical, and sustainable for the world.

We as a team strongly considered and implemented the values of human health, environmental sustainability, and ethical consideration, while designing our project. To achieve this, we created a well thought out “Human Practices” plan from the start that would guide and lead our project to become the best and most responsible solution.

To ensure that these values would be appropriate to lead our project in the right direction, we decided to consult multiple outside sources and communities to gain insight into what our project should support and represent.

The first part of our Integrated Human practices plan was of course the HUMANS. The problem that we are tackling with our project is especially a local problem but it also affects many other European countries and has the potential to become a global thread in the near future.


KEY StakeHolders

The key stakeholders are those who will be the most influenced by our project and already have knowledge on the issue we are tackling. These stakeholders are essential for our project as they not only help determine the direction of our project, but also the implementation and need in the public for our solution. Some of our key stakeholders were the general public and their opinion on this pressing issue, the already present OPC experts from the municipality, and other educational institutes and personnel. These sources helped us gain insight into the OPC problem from various different standpoints while also guiding us in understanding what kind of solution is needed. These stakeholders shed light on the current issues with pesticides which make them too hazardous to the environment to spray in forests, but also about the obstacles present in creating a biological pesticide containing bacteria. The public helped us understand the urgency of this pest issue in The Netherlands but also how it affected the everyday life of many residents. It became clear to us that the stakeholders needed an environmentally sustainable pesticide specific enough to only target the OPC, while not harming other caterpillar species which are already endangered. This product would have to be fully functional and effective in killing the OPC, this included being able to survive environmental conditions of oak trees and the gut environment within the OPC. We would have to find a way to easily implement it into society without causing disturbance to the public as a whole. These were crucial considerations that we had to make throughout our project to produce a successful and functional product that would help society. For those considerations, the general public was best to consult.


Our stakeholders include, above all, the general public; as our pesticide offers a potential solution to a problem that affects hundreds of thousands of people every year. For this reason a survey was created to collect information about the public's opinion concerning our approach. Specifically, the usage of GMOs and synthetic pesticides to fight the OPC. The conciseness, appropriateness,​ and general formatting were evaluated by other iGEM teams and, based on the feedback received, the survey was adjusted, posted, and distributed to the general public. A complete and detailed report of the results and the analysis of the survey data can be found below.

The results of our survey indicate that the OPC is a well known problem with multiple negative effects on both, human health and the environment in the affected countries. The results indicate that fighting invasive species, in general, has a relatively high importance for the public. The elaborative answers revealed that the impact on human health, close proximity to human habitation and the harm caused to the ecosystem were the biggest concerns among the participants. The importance of spreading awareness and offering education was highlighted by an increase in the perception of the OPC as a big problem after reading more information about it.

On average the participants considered our approach of a new control method more effective than the currently available methods. Therefore, these results are promising regarding the marketing of our product to the general public.

The participants’ attitude towards GMOs and synthetic pesticides in general was very cautious. After evaluating these methods in the context of fighting the OPC, however, their attitude improved significantly (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Opinions on using synthetic pesticides and GMOs. The participants were asked to rate their attitudes towards using synthetic pesticides and GMOs on a scale from 1-10, where 1 represented “They are very bad” and 10 represented “They are very good”. A paired sample t-test was used to determine if the context of fighting the OPC resulted in a statistically significant difference between the sample scores compared to context of the general use. The results for both the synthetic pesticides, t(175) = 6.86, p < .0005, and GMOs, t(175) = 7.57, p < .0005, show a statistically significant difference.

The elaborations of answers by participants revealed both positive and negative opinions especially towards GMOs, which in part stem from common misconceptions about the effect of GMOs or the lack of knowledge to form a proper opinion. This shows the importance of educating the general public about these topics.

With our general project approach, we also aim to improve the lack of science education and communication on the topics relating to our project. Our chosen media platforms to tackle this are very much in line with the results we got from the survey in terms of reaching a wide audience with the coverage of the OPC. Additionally, because only a few participants answered that they had encountered media coverage of the OPC problem on the radio, we identified this as an easily accessible media outlet that lacks coverage of the OPC. Hence, the team created a radio show presenting the OPC and our project on RTV Maastricht, which was later published as a podcast on SoundCloud. Lastly, the team’s most significant approaches aiming to improve science communication and education is their ‘Geneducation’ YouTube channel, several podcasts on Ximalaya and the iGEM Proceedings Journal. For more information about our Outreach and Science Communication, please check out our Science Communication page.

INTERVIEW (Jules Sondeijker, OPC Control Expert)

Already at the very beginning of our iGEM journey the MSP iGEM outreach team contacted Jules Sondeijker, an OPC-expert from the municipality of Sittard-Geleen, to promote the project to stakeholders that would, in the end, use the final product. The interview with the expert included questions regarding current methods, how the team could improve their work situation and what they expected from the end product. Some members of our team not only conducted the interview, but also shadowed terminators from the municipality Sittard-Geleen as they sprayed a park, and multiple roads harbouring oak trees. They experienced, first hand, the dangers and hardship of fighting the OPC. The team members saw for themselves what the pesticides currently used do to the ecosystem and all of its inhabitants when they examined the ground beneath the treated trees and identified many dead caterpillars. These were not the OPC, but instead other species of budding caterpillars which are already threatened. The qualitative observation by our team members made us more interested into the topic and we conducted more research and found out that this observation was substantiated by previous research on off-target effects of Bacillus thuringiensis pesticides, reviewed for instance by Boisvert and Boisvert (2010).In a report on alternative control methods against the pine and oak processionary caterpillar in urban conditions by the French national agency of health, food, environment and work, the threat to diverse Lepidopteran species posed by the usage of Bt pesticides was emphasized. This is why spraying Bt pesticides near nature reserves is prohibited in France (Delorme, Grégoire, Jactel, Martin & Reignault, 2013).

Overall, the current methods to control the population of caterpillars have many downsides to them. First of all, they are extremely expensive. Due to the increasing nuisance caused by the oak processionary caterpillar, the control costs increased up to approximately 90.000 euro last year (Benneker, 2020). Furthermore, current methods are damaging the environment, impairing the functioning of the surrounding ecosystem, and are also dangerous for the workers themselves. After explaining our idea, both the terminators and the expert were interested and gave their support by providing further information on the caterpillar removal process and how a better solution could be developed. Furthermore, they informed us on what they would like to see in our project and how they would like to be included in the development process. Based on these interviews with the terminators and email correspondence with Jules Sondeijker, we tried to design our product to suit the needs of the end users. This was done while still trying to maintain our own main goal; to protect the environment and all of its inhabitants. The end users wished for a pesticide that would be easy to use, for example having the ability to spray it over wide stretches of forests and preferably only once a year. Moreover, the pesticide must halt the growth and deplete the caterpillar population, before they develop their toxic hairs. This is done so that the use of the pesticide on the caterpillars is as safe as possible for the terminators and the allergenic hairs do not have a chance to develop and affect the public. We took all of this into consideration and developed a pesticide that can be sprayed preventively onto the trees as soon as the caterpillars hatch and are still in their early hairless stages. In addition, we made sure that our pesticide, containing the bacteria that produce siRNAs, would be absolutely harmless for humans and other caterpillars. It would only need to be used once or twice per year on the same oak trees.

Further, to aid the terminators in their work, we developed a mathematical model of the population changes in the OPC in a certain area. This model aimed to explore how an initially small but stable population of OPC in an area can suddenly lead to an outbreak. This model is heavily based on D. Ludwigs famous Qualitative Analysis of Insect Outbreak Systems model, better known as the spruce budworm model. More about the model can be found on this page. With the help of this model, the terminators will be able to determine which areas and trees to spray preventively based on the data from previous years.

Secondly, we needed to think about the ethical consideration of our project, especially since we are considering using a GMO in a natural environment. To be able to appropriately assess the impact of our GMOP on the oak ecosystem, we contacted Experts in this field, which supported us in giving their informed opinions on the use of GMOs in a natural environment and how we could ensure the highest safety possible in regards to our genetically modified organism.

OAK / BACTERIA (JESSICA NELSON / Julius Kühn-Institut)

Late in the season, while the final active compound, that would be produced by our synthetic bacteria, became more and more developed we started to focus also on the ethical and scientific impacts our bacterium would have on the oak tree environment. We were wondering and researching which bacteria would be the best fit and what ethical implications would apply. To resolve our concerns the team had an informal conversation with Dr. Jessica Nelson, a specialist for plant microbiomes, about the potential impact of the developed synthetic bacterium on the oak microbiome.

Additionally, Prof. Dr. Johannes Jehle, who works at the Julius Kuehne Institut, the German Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants, gave feedback with his expert opinion on using engineered bacteria and siRNA in a natural plant environment.

The two conversations brought some important concerns to attention. Both experts agreed that the original plan to use commensal oak bacteria as CASSI is not an optimal solution since those often have a broad host range and have a high potential to establish themselves in the environment. This is not allowed according to the law regulations. The EU has adopted a comprehensive legislative framework for the deliberate release and placing on the market of GMOs has been adopted by the EU and Directive 2001/18/EC is the text of reference, when it comes to the assessment of GMO release. This reference states that the release of GMOs can only be approved for a maximum of ten years. This means the GMO is not allowed to establish itself in the environment it was released in. Therefore, it was decided to change the approach of the project and use non-virulent E.coli since the danger is much lower and they would not be able to disrupt the balance of the natural oak ecosystem (van Elsas, J. D., 2011).


Towards the end of September the team started to focus more on the actual commercialization of their product and how they could adjust their project to fit the needs of the community and industry. The team had a call with Jetske de Boer, an entomologist and researcher for terrestrial ecology at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) in Wageningen. Based on her research on biological control and insect biodiversity, the biggest advantages Jetske sees in biological control methods are their high specificity and the natural enemy-target insect relationship. A biological control agent can therefore adapt to an evolving target species, whereas the effectiveness of a synthetic pesticide would become limited. In that aspect, Jetske sees OakShield rather as a synthetic pesticide than a biological control agent, as the bacteria, due to the one-sided relationship, presumably would not respond to any mutations in the caterpillar genome. However, our team stressed that OakShield and the particular siRNA sequences would be easily adaptable.

Moreover, Jetske confirmed that it was an advantage of our OakShield to target several essential genes in order to avoid fast resistance development. Jetske does not necessarily see any concerns in releasing OakShield into the environment, as the construct is designed to specifically target the OPC. However, one point to consider is that by targeting the OPC, also specialized natural enemies of the OPC are affected. For this reason, she supports our goal of aiming at pest management rather than eradication. The OPC would continue to come in from the South anyways. By allowing some OPC populations to survive, the natural system of insects and specialized enemies will remain intact.

A second conversation was held with Sarah Perfect, global R&D licensing and collaborations manager at Syngenta. The team reached out to Syngenta to get an opinion on the commercial potential of OakShield and to discuss PR regarding the use of GMOs in crop and forest protection.

The conversation was very helpful. Regarding the realization and commercialization of our product, Sarah recommended familiarizing ourselves with the according regulations and understanding the process of registration. In the case of GMO products, there are quite different regulatory criteria in different places and different timelines for the registration process. In the European Union, the pesticide would have to be assessed in many aspects and tested according to the “step by step” principle in order to obtain the authorization for cultivation as stated in the EU council Directive 2001/18/EC for the deliberate release of GMOs. This authorization process for example differs from the process a GMO pesticide has to go through to be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States. Moreover, she emphasized that it is very good and essential that we have thought about a backup plan of spraying an RNA extract instead of the GM bacteria.

Regarding the different regulations in the US and the EU, we could potentially market the bacterial product in the US and sell the purified RNA product in Europe. “We need to be very mindful when introducing new technology and we need to do that in a sensitive way to public opinions. We need to bring the customers and the public along with us when thinking about new technology solutions.” (Sarah Perfect) According to Sarah, a particular advantage of RNAi is its specificity, which might help as well with the acceptance of this novel technology. “We need to keep in mind that there is no single technology solution to solve all problems, so we should aim to provide a broad tool box, which biologicals are certainly a part of.” (Sarah Perfect on biological vs synthetic pesticides)

The team also received helpful advice from her regarding the potential large-scale production and commercialization of OakShield. The technology to produce biological products by way of fermentation on a large scale, would already be available. An important point to consider is the market size our product would have. In general, the bigger the market, the lower the production cost. The market for OakShield would be limited to the number of countries affected by the Oak Processionary Caterpillar, which would be of interest for potential future sponsors. We consider it essential to also get in touch with researchers who work in the respective field.

We decided to prioritize addressing the public's concern about the ethical implementation of our product in our environment, over the first more futuristic design of our projects. We thought about how we could potentially modify our pesticide in such a way that the concerns the community had about the use of GMOs would be solved. In the end, we found a solution how our pesticide will not only stay as specific and environmentally friendly as before, but is also in line with the current legal guidelines (primarily Directive 2001/18/EC) and the main opinion of the community. Since we found out, with our survey that the general public is quite sceptical of the use of life GMOs in their direct environment;on a scale of one (“They are very bad”) to ten (“They are very good”), with an average of 5.63, the participants’ attitude towards GMOs in general was shown to be rather cautious. We compromised and found an alternative way of using our pesticide without spraying life GMOS by spraying an RNA extract. The report from the European Council on the “Evaluation of Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 on the placing of plant protection products on the market and of Regulation (EC) No 396/2005 on maximum residue levels of pesticides” to the European Parliament, however, gives a promising outlook regarding the authorization of our pesticide. It supports studies demanding an adaptation of the legislative framework, i.e. assessment technologies and data requirements, for the authorization of innovative technologies such as microorganisms used as biopesticides exploiting RNA-based gene silencing.

Additionally, we prioritized science communication and education as a big part of our project, because even though we found a way to create a product that does not require the use of life GMOs in the wild, the effectivity of our product is unfortunately lower. We believe that educating the public and the affected communities about the positive impact GMOs can have and the safety of those, would enable us to, in the future, use our original product.


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