What is Biosafety?
According to the Introduction to the Cartagena Protocol  - an international agreement on the
safe transfer, use
and handling of genetically modified organisms - biosafety can be defined as:
What is Biosafety
"A range of measures, policies and procedures for minimizing potential risks that biotechnology may
to the environment and human health. Establishing credible and effective safeguards for GMOs is critical
maximizing the benefits of biotechnology while minimizing its risks"
What is Biosafety
In our project, there are two angles we approach Biosafety from: the safety assessment of using cell-free
systems in research; and considerations about the development of new plant varieties and the biosafety
related to agricultural use of transplastomic plants.
Biosafety Aspects of Cell-Free Systems
One of the concerns regarding lab biosafety is the possibility of living organisms “escaping” and either
diseases in the local flora or being introduced in the ecosystem as an invasive species . For plant synthetic biology research,
this means that
all engineered plants need to be confined to S1/S2 greenhouses, with special guidelines for their
the experiments are done. Such measures entail extra costs and logistical hurdles to anyone in this
might be prohibitive for iGEM teams.
Since cell-free systems enable transcription and translation but are abiotic and do not reproduce, they
up new possibilities . For instance, it would be possible to rapidly implement several DBTL cycles
the unintentional release of an organism. In the case of plants, it would mean less transgenic pollen,
seeds and biomaterial being produced, while in other cases it means a safer workplace for
would otherwise work with living pathogens .
beyond our project's scope, this technology could replace organisms being currently used to synthesise
pharmaceuticals and other molecules of value with the added benefit of improved biocontainment .
Biosafety Aspects of Transplastomic Plants
As we all know, chloroplasts - much like the mitochondria - were once free living bacteria. Their
path has made these organelles somewhat independent from the rest of the cell, chloroplasts have their
with instructions for a transcription and translation machinery, tRNAs and other photosynthesis related
This independence is per se one of the reasons why chloroplasts are such an interesting Synbio platform,
have yet another trick up their sleeve: maternal inheritance .
In most economically significant plant species, sperm cells do not carry chloroplasts, in other species they
are excluded during fertilization, this means all the chloroplast genome - plastome - is inherited from
the egg cell, and not the pollen grain. Like everything in
there are exceptions: there is a miniscule possibility that some chloroplasts are passed on paternally
; transplastomics represents, however, an
in the gene-flow probability in comparison to nuclear-engineered plants. While nuclear-transformed
separated by a 10m corridor have a cross-pollination frequency of about 0.01, chloroplast paternal
similar conditions has a frequency of about one million times lower [9,8]. We
strongly believe that a significant improvement in biosafety can pave the way to public acceptance of
Another important advantage of transforming chloroplasts is their capability for high foreign protein
. For instance, this can be advantageous to reduce the chance
developing resistance against the Bt toxin , or
plants as bioreactors to produce a high quantity of antibodies and vaccines . We have a duty, however, to also think
about the ways our
technology can be misused by parties aiming to harm others; In that regard, the high protein expression
used to create plants that produce toxins and allergens, and by facilitating the engineering of
cell-free systems like ours could also contribute to their misuse. On the other hand, cell-free systems do not
shift the current threat model of recombinant protein production, as the same hurdles of purifying and
the synthesized protein still apply .
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