Team:Crete/Human Practices


Taking part in the iGEM competition and especially working on Human Practices has been a mentally draining but also rewarding experience as it pushed us to confront dilemmas with social, ethical and humanitarian parameters. Finding our way through this maze of endless crossroads of deontological decisions and numerous reality deadlocks that blocked our creativity, served a crucial role in the brainstorming process as well as in building concrete values for ourselves as future scientists, doctors and active members of our society. First and foremost, we had to verbalize and solidify what impact we wanted to have on the world. Contributing to a large-scale, multidimensional, urgent health problem with a solution that would be equally accessible to whoever was affected was our main focus.
The process of regularly evaluating our methods and outcomes while maintaining a close interaction with the community members ensured the alignment of our actions with society’s expectations and needs. Nevertheless, the actual embodiment of our aims in educational yet engaging and fun activities was, in fact, a bit more complex than we originally thought. That might have initially been quite stressful, but down the line, it was a valuable lesson as we got better in adjusting in person events to social distancing-friendly means and overall working in the uncertain, ever changing era of this pandemic. All in all, the values of the human practices that we cherish the most are the mental challenges we had to face and the practical problem-shooting strategies and service-orientation skills we developed.

The Human Practices Circle

Build a diverse team

How did we ensure we would build a diverse team?

During the interviews in December the oldest members of the team made sure this year’s team was composed of undergraduate students of several departments of the University of Crete and therefore different academic backgrounds. Biology students would have to be the main force, providing solid biology knowledge to carry out the project and since they were in different academic years older students would be mentoring the younger ones. To further enhance our team’s diversity, medical students would help us bring a human-centric approach to our activities and project development. Last but not least, students from the materials science and technology department as well as the computer science department would also bring new techniques to refine our designs and dry lab work.
Of course being a multinational and multi-religious team turned out to be a great advantage for us as we gained a realistic view of the impact this pandemic had on people in different countries, how it was interpreted through the lenses of different cultures and religious beliefs and finally, how it was confronted by national health systems worldwide. This input helped us design a project that would hopefully meet the needs of not only our local community and developing countries, as we originally planned, but also the home countries of our team members.
Overall even though our base is in a relatively small university, building a diverse team in terms of religion, nationality and sexuality felt like bringing a representative environment for everyone to work comfortably in, which revealed the urgent need to solidify equality and inclusion to become our core values. This experience gave us a chance to develop our work ethics and prepare for our future studies in larger scale workplaces.

Explore context

In what larger real-world policy context are we working in? Before exploring the available ways of approaching different target groups, we first needed to create a context for our activities to develop having certain standards. This context basically worked as a safety net that would protect us from being out of sync with the community and its qualities such as ethics, diversity, inclusiveness and gender equality. In other words we aimed to create a scientifically sound project without getting lost in the cyclon of blue skies research. It also helped us reinforce social engagement, open access to our results, protection of personal data and science education. This would result in the engagement of societal actors with biology, our project and the competition in general so we could produce innovative yet ethically acceptable and socially suitable outcomes. In order to achieve that we used the Responsible Research and Innovation Practice (RRI-Practice) as a guide for creating our context.


Since the beginning of the pandemic it was pretty obvious that it would be an issue that would affect every single aspect of our lives on a global scale. Physical health definitely took a great hit but it was the side effects on mental health, the economy and education that really forced our lives to take a turn. We realised that by aiming at the single problem of COVID-19 we would simultaneously face the pandemic in all its complexity and confront issues we were not even aware of at the time. But it was a risk we were willing to take. When deciding on the actual project we took into consideration the importance of primary health and particularly, the advantages of prevention over therapy which made us prompt the development of a vaccine over a drug proposal. Wanting to have our vaccine be broadly accessible, especially in developing countries, we decided to follow the edible approach. It was also crucial that our project would not engender any new problems and if that occurred we would be alert to detect and overcome them.
Later on, when other vaccines became available we reassessed our decisions and tried to figure out what were the current needs of our target groups and how we would adjust in order to meet them. The needs we attempted to approach were making a vaccine which would be easily distributed or preferably produced locally without excessive and expensive equipment, with a low production cost and low demanding storage.
From this point on, it was a matter of continuously evolving and reassessing our work. In the following tabs you can find out more about our team’s Human Practises side projects and how the values of goodness and responsibility were interpreted and incorporated in our project.

Document Progress

There was a point where we were deeply submerged into the world of Human Practices. Brainstorming on new projects, stumbling upon the bureaucracy of others, cancelling events due to upcoming restrictions whilst orchestrating up and running other ones. But instead of reaching a new level of understanding of the needs and expectations of our community or connecting the pieces to reveal the underlying meaning of the feedback we gained after our events, we felt like we reached a dead end.
Quite simply, we were utterly struggling to see the bigger picture.
This is when we realised we needed to take a step back and reassess. We ran through the records we kept from our meetings, reviewed the feedback we got from scientific and non-scientific members of the community and finally we discussed the sub-projects we collaborated with other iGEM teams on. We then assessed each project based on the quality of our output to the world, the correspondence of our target group and deviation between the effort we put into it and the positive feedback we got.
Moving on, we decided we better narrow the endless directions that our Human Practices work could go, down to the ones we felt strongly about and agreed unanimously upon. These were:
As the fourth key point worked as an umbrella for the rest of them, we started from there and slowly worked our way through the remaining three. The “Ethics Handbook, an Introduction to Ethics for iGEMmers” by the iGEM team Technion 2017 was a wonderful starting point for us to get the gist of ethics and deontology around vaccines, GMOs and synthetic biology in general. As we further explored the literature resources, we gained a better understanding of the underlying causes of anti-vaccination movements and the scepticism against GMOs (if you are interested in finding more about our journey through the maze of ethical dilemmas surrounding our project, please click here
The World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Social Science Research Council were not only exceptionally useful resources that allowed us to monitor the rapidly changing Covid-19 outbreak, but also worked as a model for us to organise our inquiry, generate insight into the latest needs of the society and mobilize necessary knowledge on the pandemic and the prospects of an edible vaccine for SARS-CoV-2.

Integrate Insights

As aforementioned, seeking out and analyzing feedback from multiple resources was a key element for making the best out of our initial project idea. We couldn’t be more grateful for all the people who put the time and effort to examine our ideas and brainstorm on them to help us complete a knowledge transfer plan. Every meeting with a guest from a specific scientific field, other iGEMers etc evoked a discussion amongst our team’s members that would take place after each meeting ended.
Such discussions would bring up major turning points or corroborate our plan. Annotating the feedback and deciding whether we would make adjustments or not based on it was by itself a great learning opportunity as it enhanced our cognitive flexibility and our critical thinking skills. As we reached out to more and more people we created a trustworthy, interdisciplinary network that allowed us to interlard our research and manage to strengthen individuals’ capacities of learning through untraditional ways such as taking part in a debate or creating art. This way did not just enhance public access to synthetic biology information but we made sure that our society was equally ready to process the information and make the most out of it.
It is true that we received a lot of impactful feedback yet we’d like to specially thank the rest of the iGEM teams from Greece for their valuable information. It was in them that we found favourable ears throughout our iGEM journey. Moreover we’d like to specially thank Mr. Karapanagos from the MSF Organisation for his outstanding willingness to help us unravel the complicated nature of his mission and how ours could be implemented into it.
That is to say, it is primordial that we underline that every single one of the people with whom we talked provided extremely valuable insight; and for that we thank them deeply.

Close the Loop

For our team the Human Practices Circle did not exactly move onward from building our team all the way to closing the loop. It was more of a chaotic network of brainstorming, exploring and presenting our work only to find a new context to work on and realise that previous work needed to be redone. Time flew by, and by October 2021 we had created a handful of mini HP Circles, one for every side-project, floating around like galaxies in our HP Universe.

Integrated Human Practices

Integrated - Project

Meeting with Giorgos Zakinthinos and Alexadros Papachatzis

First contact: Upon bibliography research we came across an interview article written by prof. George Zakinthinos, Associate Professor, Department of Food Technology, Technological Educational Institute of Peloponnese, and prof. Alexandros Papahatzis, Prof. in Fruit Tree Growing (Pomology), University of Thessaly, Dep. of Agricultural Agrotechnology. They examined the prospect of producing an edible vaccine with Greek plant-based products and specifically talked about recent innovations of agro-pharmacology which can lead the way towards this direction. In this article it was not, by any means, implied that the two scientists have proceeded on designing or executed any lab work on this project. Nevertheless, since they seemed to have come up with an idea with observable similarities to ours, we figured it was in our best interest to get in touch with them.
Second meeting: A few emails later we managed to arrange a meeting with prof. Zakinthinos and prof. Papahatzis as well as prof. Saris and prof. Spilianakis, our team’s Primal Investigators. Prior to the meeting we prepared a few topics we would like to exchange ideas on. First of all, we were interested in learning about any struggles they might have stumbled on and what their troubleshooting experience was. Moreover, their experience in the transgenic plant production could be illuminating for us as we were quite unfamiliar with this field. A brief discussion on finding reliable sponsors in Greece would also be extremely helpful. Last but not least, we were intrigued to learn more about their thinking process behind their idea of an edible vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 because, since their academic background differed majorly to ours, we assumed that they would accordingly have figured a different way to getting to the same endpoint with us.
During the meeting, they gave us an overview of the techniques that have worked very effectively on previous projects of theirs. Just to mention a few, prof. Zakinthynos talked about the freeze drying and spray drying techniques they use for making capsules used for per os medication. Mr Papahatzis proposed Nicotiana tabacum (?) as an alternative to lettuce and he also elaborated on an interesting approach of using chloroplasts to transport an antigen to the intestine without being affected by the acidic stomach environment.
This approach also came with no ethical dilemmas regarding GMOs. Unfortunately, they were not able to give us any guidance on whether we should use immunomodulators or not. Later on we engaged in a conversation about possible ways of creating diagnostic tools for a virus infection, such as using plants infected by viral RNA mass production of the viral RNA and finally, through lyophilisation, obtaining large amounts of the viral RNA which could be used for protein identification. Moreover, one of the points prof. Papahatzis made, that really stood out for us, was the idea of creating an edible vaccine to immunise animals that are hosts for common zoonoses.
When they were asked to give us some feedback on our project, they were kind enough to point out the benefits of the low cost mass production as well as the general benefit of using plants instead of animal products as a way to avoid any problems that could occur due to reverse transmissibility

Meeting with George Sourvinos

Professor of Clinical Virology, Department of Medicine School, University of Crete.
Director of Clinical Virology Lab, PAGNI (Hospital).
Professor George Sourvinos was willing to help us from the first moment we approached him. We needed his expertise in virology. We set up an online meeting and explained to him in great detail our ideas and our project. In that same meeting he gave us some good advice and feedback on the subject. We discussed some methods that would be useful to detect antibodies with immunofluorescence experiments. We also talked about how to induce immunization in mice. Afterwards, we continued our conversation on what strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to use in our vaccine and how to quantify them.
This was a great opportunity for us to present our work and get some feedback. The conversation was eye-opening, we got exposed to new ideas, techniques and we learned a lot more things that we were expecting. We are very thankful for our collaboration with Pr. George Sourvinos and we hope to work together again soon.

Meeting with Vasilis Gisakis

Description: Dr of Agronomy, coordinator of Agroecology programmes in Greece.
We interviewed Dr. Basilis Gisakis with the purpose of broadening our knowledge regarding culturing plants and all the procedures we would follow if our project reached the production line. Our conversation with Dr. Gisakis was very productive. He introduced us to some new concepts of his field and gave us the opportunity to explore different ways to improve our project. He also advised us to contact some known to him colleagues that could solve the questions we had. One of them is Pavlos Kalaitzoglou, Director of Crop Science-INFARM.

Meeting with Despoina Tsoukatou

Our project can be a proof of concept but our main goal is to inspire and motivate researchers to develop it so that it can be available either for animals or even for man himself. Considering that in order to reach this level our project would have to follow a series of clinical trials and experiments on experimental animals such as mice, we considered it necessary to contact a veterinarian in order to clarify the procedures required for handling the experiments during an experiment in a laboratory, the risks it may pose to either humans or animals, the challenges we may face and the procedural part that should have been studied and processed in each case.
So in the context of integrated human practices we came in contact with the veterinarian Mrs. Despina Tsoukatou , as a technical scientist specializing in cellular and molecular immunology of the research center FORTH (Institute of Technology and Research).
Initially, she explained that laboratory mice eat certain foods and that improper food can cause diarrhea, affecting their well-being. She also stressed that each protocol must be designed in such a way as to keep the number of mice used to a minimum.
In addition to our constructive discussion and helpful tips, Ms. Tsoukatou provided us with a pdf file about mice biology, husbandry and facility, thus contributing to the creation of an experimental animal management booklet, which is a tool for both us and future researchers.

Integrated - Human Practices

Meeting with Dr. Dalezios on Ethics & Deontology

Our meeting with Dr Dalezios, assistant professor of Physiology in the Medical School of Crete and member of the Research Ethics and Deontology Committee (REDC) of the University of Crete, was an insightful experience as he gave us an in depth overview of the requirements we had to fulfil in order to achieve the maintenance and safety of research data integrity and consistency as well as the ethical integrity of research data. Moreover, he elaborated on the role of our University’s REDC which guarantees for the reliability and ethics of every research project that is carried out in our University, with respect for the value of every human being involved, their private life and personal data, as well as their natural and cultural environment. Lastly, we discussed the necessity of including mice in our project and what would be the right way to do that. To find more about work on ethics click here

Meeting with Mr. George Karapanagos on the Epidemiolgy of Sub-Saharan Africa During the Pandemic

Since our project is majorly meant to contribute to the cessation of the unequal distribution of vaccines in developing countries, it was crucial for us to get a better understanding of the epidemiology and vaccination statistics in those countries. Most importantly though, we needed to get an idea of the everyday struggles in this area during the pandemic. This is why we reached out to MSF Greece and arranged a meeting with Mr George Karapanagos, an epidemiologist who takes action mostly in sub-saharan Africa and has a studying background focused on nutrition and public health.
Mr Karapanagos gave us a lively and thorough overview of how sub-Saharan Africa has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of the already existing common and rare tropical diseases such as malaria and trypanosomiasis accordingly. This information definitely made us reassess our priorities for not only making our vaccine accessible by having a low production cost and having it be easily distributed and stored, but also communicating to the target communities the urgency of getting vaccinated for the COVID-19 pandemic, even though they already struggle to provide protection from the ongoing transition of tropical diseases in their area.
Moreover, Mr Karapanagos mentioned that the cost of delivering vaccines from the USA to Europe and finally Africa is constantly rising due to climate change and pointed out that it is a great advantage for a vaccine to be produced wherever it is needed, which was already a property of our edible vaccine. To further brainstorm and expand on planning a realistic vaccination campaign tailored to the exact needs and the already established humanitarian action in sub-Saharan Africa, we talked about RECOs. RECOs are basically health promoter desks. Small groups run each desk and provide basic health services. Their members are not necessarily health professionals specialised in advance for the issue they will handle, but the teams constantly train one on other so they can easily provide up to date healthcare to a large area. These teams work with very little equipment therefore our vaccine would perfectly meet their needs as it is easy to use and no special equipment is needed. In addition to that, we thought that an attempt of having people consent to eating vegetables in order to get vaccinated, would be much more successful than having them get injections.
Furthermore, he gave us some more practical ideas on how we could approach the local communities in sub-Saharan Africa and have them embrace the idea of an edible vaccine. One of them was replacing lettuce with Manihot Esculenta or Cassava, as commonly called. Cassava is a woody shrub commonly used in sub-Saharan Africa and other tropical and subtropical regions for its carbohydrate-rich root. This is not the only way Cassava is used in African cuisine. The leaves of the plant are also edible after boiling and the root itself can also be graded, pressed and dehydrated to make garri, the West African coarse flour. Hearing about the properties of this commonly used plant convinced us to consider Manihot Esculenta as a strong candidate against lettuce for our project.
What really stood out for us from our conversation with Mr Karapanagos was the humancentric approach MSF has integrated into its actions and the impact it seems to have both on the local community as well as the MSF volunteers themselves. The ethics and devotion Mr Karapanagos showed for his work in MSF made him one of the most inspirational people we talked to during our preparation for the competition. Therefore it was a great pleasure for us to accept his invitation and arrange a following in person meeting in Athens.
During our in person meeting, we had the chance to take a tour to the MSF spaces and get a firm grasp on how the organisation operates. Throughout our conversation we expanded upon our previous points that were set during our previous discussion.
We elaborately went through the entire process of organising a hypothetical local distribution of our edible vaccines and we tackled possible problems that could arise. We arrived at the conclusion that even though our plant of choice may seem quite unfamiliar to local people, other options such as the tapioca plant that are extremely popular would not be a viable option, mainly due to its edible part being the root and not the actual plant. Moreover we talked about local politics and how one could bypass them to speed up the process. Lastly we discussed the available means in specific countries that could be used to promote such an initiative and created a hypothetical plan of action. It is our firm belief that this followup meeting was extremely valuable as it made us realise the intricacies of our initiative and helped us pave a clear way on how one would go about it.


Even outside the frame of the iGEM competition our team felt obliged to make sure that our project aims to ameliorate the current state of the world by adjusting our goals in order to match UN’s sustainability goals. In that way we managed to create a project that aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages, ensure inclusive and equitable quality education (via our side projects) and reduce inequality within and among countries. Moreover we strived to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impact (especially through the implementation of our ideas in future NSDSs , protect terrestrial ecosystems and reverse land degradation. Lastly we located the fine line between our project and revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development. In total we feel that we have successfully tackled more than a third of the UN's sustainable goals and the total sum of the goals that can actually be applied to our project.