Scientific research pushes the boundaries of what is possible, thereby introducing humanity to never-seen-before technology. Every new discovery comes with possibilities and risks. It is the responsibility of researchers to perform their work as safely as possible and consider future consequences.
Our team took several measures to ensure safety before and during our work on the project.

Safety instruction

Before entering the lab, all team members received an extensive safety instruction by our PI Dr. Nicole Gensch explaining how to safely work in a lab according to our university’s standards (click here for more information about our universities safety standarts). As we are working with genetically modified organisms, we received training for working in a biosafety level 1 (BSL-1) lab and were informed about the risks and requirements involving the work with GMOs. Moreover, we learned how to handle hazardous chemicals with the proper care.

Working in the Lab

Our lab is equipped with many safety features including chemical fume hoods, eye showers, first aid kits, emergency stop switch and more. Our safety guidelines state that whilst work is being carried out, personal safety equipment and clothing must be worn to minimize health hazards. Lab coats, gloves and goggles were always provided in the lab, and we had the possibility to talk to an in-house biological safety officer when needed. Throughout the project we regularly met with our PIs, different professors and experts form other labs to discuss the planning and possible safety concerns of our experiments. This has helped us choose a project that poses low risks, and we were confident in handling our lab equipment safely.

Project safety

During the early project planning stage, before starting lab work, we made it a central point to find a project, that does not exceed biosafety level 1, does not use organisms that are not on the whitelist and that does not require special permission of an ethics committee. We only used bacteria that can survive in a laboratory. So even if our bacteria are accidentally released the risk would be very low and they would probably die outside of the lab. We decided against risky project ideas regarding safety to reduce the potential risk of our project. Especially while choosing a model pathway to test our compartmentalisation systems, we were guided by our principle of risk reduction.
Because we are a foundational advance project and working with new technology, it is especially important to consider potential miss-use of our discoveries. Dual-use hazards posed by our work could potentially be the exploitation of our compartmentalization strategies. For examples the bacterial microcompartments could be used to enhance synthesis of dangerous substances, as any enzymatic pathway could profit from our system. After discussion the risks and benefits, we came to the conclusion, that the dual-use hazard is small compared to the possibilities of our project. Being able to enhance the production of indigo/indirubin can help reduce the impact of indigo production on the environment and the provide indirubin for medical purposes.
Our research on non-canonical amino acids could be misused on one hand by someone trying to subvert DNA synthesis screening algorithms. On the other hand, non-canonical amino acids have great potential for biosafety. For example, introducing modifying dangerous proteins to be only produced in the presence of non-canonical amino acids, similar to what we did with sfGFP, can be used as a containment strategy. These proteins could only be produced in the lab in specific medium containing non-canonical amino acids.

Real world application

Our work on the enhanced indigo/indirubin pathway has the possibility to be scaled up for industrial purposes. We considered the safety concerns when finding a real-world application for our project. One advantage of our project is, that it does not involve release beyond containment. Even on an industrial level our compartmentalisation systems can be used in a closed bioreactor. Furthermore, the production of our model pathway for indigo/indirubin cannot be contaminated by GMOs as it is a dye and can be purified.