We attended a biosecurity and -safety workshop by iGEM ambassadors in the Nordic iGEM Conference in Linköping and learned a lot about biosafety and biosecurity, and how to take those aspects into consideration when doing synthetic biology research.

Biosafety was a big aspect of our project design, and a reason why we wanted to use a cell-free detection mechanism in our assay. Cell-free detection means that we are utilizing the protein expression system of an organism from the cell lysates, and no living organisms are used in the kit distributed to farmers. This way there is no risk of gene modified organisms being released in nature.

We are using different gene modified Escherichia Coli strains in the laboratory to make our plasmid constructs. The bacteria is handled only in the laminar flow cabinet to protect both our strain and the environment from contaminations (Fig. 1). The genetically modified E. Coli cultures were disposed of according to the guidelines in the laboratory.

In the design phase of our project, we also took into account the Biosafety Level of our laboratory, which is Level 1. We are not using any functional viruses or other pathogens in the laboratory even though we are creating a bioassay for detecting pathogens. Instead, we created a plasmid that produces a short DNA-sequence of the virus that we are detecting. This way, there is no risk of the virus spreading in the laboratory and, for example, contaminating other researchers’ work.

Lab safety

All the team members working in the laboratory were introduced to the laboratory, including instructions on how to deal with waste and hygiene, as well as fire and work safety. We also got an introduction on how to use the equipment in the laboratory (Fig. 2). All the team members wore lab coats and gloves when doing the experiments, as well as eye-protection glasses when needed. Bacteria was only handled in a laminar flow cabinet.

A person working hands inside a laminar flow cabinet, with a lab coat and lab gloves on.
Figure 1. An ABOA member working in the laminar flow cabinet.

A fire blanket, fire extinguisher, bandages and other first aid equipment onnt he wall of the laboratory.
Figure 2. Fire safety equipment and first aid equipment.

RNAse away inside a fume cabinet
Figure 3. RNAse free spray used inside a fume cabinet.

Harmful reagents

Some of our experiments included handling of harmful reagents. When planning an experiment with a new chemical, the properties of the chemical were checked from the safety data sheets, and precautionary measures were taken according to the instructions in the safety sheet. Here are some examples of harmful reagents we used in the laboratory.

Antibiotics were handled as instructed and disposed of according to the instructions given to us.

Ethidium Bromide was used for agarose gel visualization. Since it is toxic when inhaled it was only handled under a fume cabinet.

RNAse free spray to avoid contamination of our RNA samples by RNAses, we used RNAse free. Since it is toxic when inhaled, it was only handled inside a fume cabinet (Fig. 3).

Spermidine can cause irreversible damage to the skin as well as irreversible eye damage. Eye protection and protective gloves were used when handling spermidine.

Safety measures associated to COVID-19

When we started working on our project, there were still some recommendations from our university to avoid on-site gatherings, which is why we held the meetings for the first five months online. When the restrictions were taken down, we started to have on-site meetings, always also providing an option to join the meeting online as well in case someone has even mild symptoms.