Our team believes that good Human Practice and Public Engagement have been our two most important intrinsic motivators, rather than iGEM requirements. This became clear in the period that our team got to know each other during our Masters. As we became good friends, we discovered that each individual team member had a strong desire to stop talking about the big problems that society faces nowadays and start contributing to the solution of these issues. From the very beginning, we were determined to make our project mean something and we hope it will have an impact that extends beyond the scope of the iGEM competition. Before and during the design of our project, we have consulted our stakeholders in order to identify, investigate and address several Human Practice issues to the best of our abilities. Our stakeholders come from various walks of life and include academia, industrial and regulatory bodies and the general public. We have visited several large-scale events, conducted interviews with experts from the field, recorded a series of podcasts and visited the Photanol pilot plant in order to identify the industrial settings for creating a cell factory. The incredible contributions from all our stakeholders, makes us feel that, no matter the outcome, our project has been an immensely rewarding experience.
General Public We asked people for their opinions on several events and tailored our project design to their concerns.
Academia Input that experts from all kinds of scientific fields gave us enabled us in designing our project.
Industry We visited the Photanol pilot plant and received valuable input on the industrial settings that our strains need to produce in.
Regulatory Bodies Talking to policy makers provided us with the information to make our project compatible with the regulatory demands.
Climate Marathon - de Balie Amsterdam
During the Climate Marathon, new perspectives on climate change were being discussed. They looked for blockages and solutions in our thinking about the environment. In three steps they went from problem to solution: what is the current situation, what psychological reflexes influence our human actions and, finally, what can we do in the Netherlands? Guests ranged from political leaders, writers, scientists, decision and policy makers.
We were present at the Climate Marathon to introduce the public to the possibilities that synthetic biology has to offer. Besides introducing the people to our project, we actively engaged in discussions, asking questions like: "What do you think about genetic modification?", "Is it natural to modify organisms?", "Do we want to modify organisms if it contributes to solving environmental issues?" and "What are your thoughts on safety?". We recorded the responses in a movie.
It was amazing to see the the enthusiasm and the willingness of most people to think about these tough questions together. It was very inspiring; giving us the feeling that what we are doing is actually bigger than our work in the lab!
Knowledge Parade - RIVM Bilthoven
During the Knowledge Parade, visitors gained insight into the way in which all residents of the Netherlands come into contact with chemicals and bacteria. Through workshops, lectures and experiments, the guests were introduced to the work of RIVM. The Knowledge Parade was part of the Week of Science.
At the Knowledge Parade, our team made synthetic biology accessible to the public. We talked about our project and discussed the possibilities and risks of initiatives like ours. While explaining concepts like photosynthesis, we provided a peek inside the world of microbiology by letting the guests write their name with our cyanobacteria. Like real Photosynthetic Magic, the names appeared one week later.
Refugee Initiatives pitch-night, organised by the UvA (UvA Aspire), UvA groups working with refugees presented their activities. The pitches were followed by posters, information stands, space to meet and greet, and more Syrian snacks.
As we believe iGEM is much more than just a scientific research, we aim to stretch the boundaries of Human Practice and Public Engagement. Our team likes to have meaningful collaborations with people from far and wide. That is why we attended the 'Refugee Initiatives' pitch-night organised by the UvA. The event brought together refugees, UvA students and staff to meet, share and get active.
We were quite proud to welcome Mohammad - a Syrian refugee - to use our project as a springboard into Dutch society. We have provided Mohammad a place to further develop his skills in HTML, English and Dutch, while he helped us with the Wiki.
Klaas Hellingwerf is professor of General Microbiology at the Faculty of Science (UvA) and co-founder of the start-up Photanol; a company that utilises proprietary engineered cyanobacteria to process carbon dioxide and sunlight into valuable chemical products.
During the project, we spoke with Klaas multiple times, picking his brain about the pitfalls and opportunities of engineering Cyanobacteria. His extensive knowledge on both microbiology and the incorporation of the organism in industry taught us about the importance of phenotypic stability. Furthermore, it became clear that while designing metabolic engineering strategies, the downstream processing is often unfortunately neglected. One of such processes is the fumarate transport system, of which little is known for our organism. Finally, Klaas advised us on appropriate assumptions in carbon efficiency analysis.
Ron Milo is professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences of the the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. He is passionate about trying to understand the cellular highways of energy and carbon transformations known as central carbon metabolism in quantitative terms.
We were very fortunate to meet Ron Milo during one of his visits at the University of Amsterdam. Ron was very inspiring and spoke about his passion and knowledge on central carbon metabolism and computational and experimental biology tools. He opened our eyes to the multiple alternatives of transforming carbon into interesting compounds and the organisms that are capable of doing so. Furthermore, he introduced us to a way of comparing these alternatives, based on carbon efficiency calculations.
Peter Mooij finished his PhD at the Delft University of Technology in the Department of Biotechnology. He is an algae researcher and author of the book "De Dikke Alg" (Fat Algae). Peter aims for a biobased economy and has used his self produced biofuel to power a wooden bike.
In our Podcast series, we spoke with Peter Mooij about how algae can help solve environmental issues. He has been working with algae almost his entire life and we wondered why this organism specifically? Contrary to our project, Peter does not use genetic modification in his quest to save the world. We were very interested in his opinion on the use of genetic modification, especially in projects like ours. We asked Peter questions like: "Can genetic modification, especially in bacteria/algae, contribute to a biobased economy?".
Interested in his opinion? Listen to the podcast:
Podcast Episode 2
Sustainability / Biobased-economy
Hans Bolscher is a senior consultant for climate, energy and sustainability. Apart from climate and energy, his specialties entail corporate social responsibility (CSR), sustainability and business, government and public services.
We spoke with Hans on his environmentally friendly houseboat about a biobased economy and the concept of carbon capture and storage and its different strategies. The biobased economy joins government, business and knowledge institutions in the quest to transit from a fossil based economy to a biobased economy. The ability to study, understand and manipulate genetic material has contributed to a biobased economy. Therefore, we talked extensively about how our project can support a biobased economy. In addition, Hans helped us getting in contact with companies and institutions aiming for a biobased economy, such as Differ, Amsterdam Economic Board and the Port of Amsterdam.
Zoë Robaey is a post doctoral researcher at the Center for Ethics and Technology at TU Delft. She specializes in policy analysis and in the field of green technologies, biological conservation and the relationship between society, science and technology.
Zoë has helped us incredibly during our project. We first met Zoë at a workshop hosted by the Rathenau Institute. During a very inspiring presentation she fueled our passion for Human Practices with striking examples such as: "when the cell-phone was invented, people were thinking about the risks for the brain, but no one thought of the way it could change our communication."
Later on, we had Skype meetings with Zoë, discussing our progress. We invited her as a guest in our Podcast series, where we spoke with Zoë about the moral issues regarding biotechnology. In this episode, we identified what genetically modified organisms are and what goal they may serve. Furthermore, we discussed how genetic modification can influence our lives and sustainability. We asked questions such as "What are we trying to achieve when being sustainable?, "Is sustainability a goal in itself?" and "Is sustainability something we can achieve with genetic modification?".
Podcast Episode 1
Wieke Betten is a PhD student at the Vrije Universiteit van Amsterdam and is an ethics fellow at Waag society. She is specialized in the ethics of emerging (bio)technologies and transdisciplinary collaborations.
We met Wieke when she gave a guest lecture about ethics in the Synthetic Biology course of our Master programme. After this very inspiring lecture, we met Wieke again at the workshop at the Rathenau Institute. We spoke with her not only about how we perceive our project, but also about how other people would perceive it. She encouraged us to think about what other people would see as the problem, and link this to our project: are we solving this problem?
Marjoleine van der Meij is researcher and teacher Science Communication where she helps students create a start-up with the aim to contribute to solving societal challenges. Furthermore, Marjoleine is a freelance game-designer; designing playful environments for deliberation on emerging technologies and controversial scientific research.
At the workshop of Rathenau we spoke with Marjoleine about science communication. She taught us that communicating our story is very important, especially when it concerns a controversial topic like genetic modification. During the workshop, she sat down with us and together we made a short comic that communicates our project by means of a comic story: cyano-b that wants to save the world once more.
Dirk Stemerding is Senior Researcher of Technology Assessment at the Rathenau institute.
We were fortunate to meet Dirk multiple times during our project. We met him during the the #workshop at the Rathenau Institute where spoke about framing. He gave a very interesting explanation about the difference between knowledge and the frame you are in. For example: The fear of GMOs can also be rooted in fear of large companies using the environment as a signboard to earn money, rather than the fear of GMOs itself.
It was an honor to host Dirks retirement party, during a Synthetic Biology workshop we gave at our lab.
Visited the Photanol pilot-plant
Photanol is a young, dynamic and ambitious company working on a breakthrough platform to turn CO2 directly into valuable compounds. Photanol uses the natural photosynthetic properties of cyanobacteria to capture sunlight and directly convert CO2 into valuable compounds, such as ethanol, butanol and propanediol.
When we first started this project, we weren’t really sure what industrial settings were. Therefore, we visited the Photanol pilot-plant to see not only how these industrial cultures are grown, but also the challenges that come with culturing cyanobacteria at such a large scale.
Once we were there, it became clear that in the greenhouse where the cyanobacteria are grown, the primary source of light is the sun. However, this also means that roughly half of the time, it is dark, and because these are photosynthetic organisms, this also means that half of the time they aren’t growing. Juliette Marin (Photanol) explained that determining whether your cells are actually producing the compound that you want is quite the hassle, as there is no quick and easy way to sense if the strain is producing.
Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment
Virgil Rerimassie is Policy Advisor at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment. He is driven to examine the ethical, legal and social implications of emerging science and technology.
We spoke with Virgil multiple times. We first met him at the workshop at the Rathenau Institute, where he was one of the experts that guided us through the iGEM experience. Virgil talked mostly about the friction between nature and sustainability and provided striking examples such as the "synthetic is not natural" discussion on Ecover and the “GMO-OMG” reflex.
A few months later, Virgil invited us for an interview, as he was shaping the future legislations on biosafety in synthetic biology. We shared our view on the current state of biosafety, the trends and the changes that have to be made to this legislation in order to keep up with the fast developing field of synthetic biology.
RIVM National Institute for Public Health and the Environment
Korienke Smit and Cécile van der Vlugt work at RIVM; the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.
We were introduced to Korienke en Cécile during the #workshop at the Rathenau Institute. Their extensive knowledge on biosafety helped us immensely during our project. We spoke about the reason for our project and the biosafety concerning the upscaling of our project. While upscaling is out of the scope of our project, we did want to design our project such that when our project would be viable to be used in industrial settings, the genetic engineering involved would not pose unnecessary risk to the general public.
We have stayed in contact and invited Korienke for our Podcast series, where we spoke about biosafety regarding genetically modified organisms. We talked about the risks of genetic modification in bacteria, how genetic modification is regulated and how genetic modification can be safely applied on a large scale.
Podcast Episode 3
Engagement and Education
Education was performed by helping students with their high school thesis, presenting for university students and by giving synthetic biology workshops. Public engagement was further performed through many more channels. We have been on several radio broadcasts, locally and nationally, we published articles in popular online magazines such as ‘Scientias’ and ‘Bedrock’ and in print media such as the national newspaper ‘Nederlands Dagblad’. Furthermore, we joined the online community Amsterdam Smart City, attended public events such as the Climate Marathon and Knowledge Parade and produced a podcast series and several movies. When adding up the reach of all channels, even skeptically, we amount to a reach of well over one million people!
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