Team:Calgary Ethics/Collaboration


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Our ethics team believes all the iGEM projects and products have corresponding ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social (E3LS) issues. We believe they also embody the ability to influence many E3LS issues. When asked to collaborate with the Guelph iGEM team in examining the E3LS implications of their project, we knew it was a great opportunity to explore the types of challenges a synthetic biology product may face and the possible impact it may have locally and globally.

Our collaboration with the Guelph iGEM team involved research into vitamin A delivery systems and an examination of the pro and con arguments related to ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social issues found in the public domain and academic papers for each of the approaches used to alleviate deficiencies. This research was undertaken to establish perspective on the feasibility and potential of the Guelph iGEM team project; a synthetic biology approach to vitamin A delivery.


We have gathered information on methods used to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency in various countries and the pro and con arguments related to ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social issues found in the public domain and academic papers for each of the approaches. If synthetic biology is to be successful, its pro/con list has to be seen to generate more pro and less con arguments and sentiments than already existing for applied intervention methods. One of the challenges of implementing a synthetic biology approach is identifying a population where it is appropriate. Supplementation is currently the primary method used to provide Vitamin A to people in developing countries and has proved to be efficient (1). Food fortification, which would include the synthetic biology approach, would have to assume the position of a complementary intervention in an overall effort to reduce Vitamin A deficiency. Although a complementary approach in the short term, longitudinally, a synthetic biology approach, like other food fortification efforts, may provide more control of Vitamin A deficiency. However, implementing food fortification programs takes years (1). In addition to that, an innovative approach like synthetic biology may take even longer due to the fact it is not well known and gaining public acceptance may introduce yet another barrier.

Much of the effort directed towards accomplishing the 4th millennium development goal, a two- thirds reduction in under-five mortality by the year 2015, has been focused on battling Vitamin A deficiency in children 6-59 months. This is due to the fact they have an increased risk of dying from measles, malaria and diarrhea (1). Therefore, countries considered a high priority for Vitamin A defining by national under 5 child mortality equal to or greater than 70 deaths per 100 000, have been the focus of many campaigns. Of the 61 countries considered high priority for Vitamin A, only 34 have conducted national assessments of Vitamin A deficiency (1). These are the countries that could be targeted with new approaches for Vitamin A delivery, including a synthetic biology approach. Since deficiency levels are reported in these countries, the efficacy of a new intervention could be roughly assessed and success of a new intervention could be highlighted and promoted for use in other countries. Within these 34 countries, specifically addressing those who have Vitamin A coverage of less than 70% in children 6-59 months is ideal. This percentage is defined as effective coverage. If supplements in these countries have not yet provided effective coverage to the population, it is possible a novel approach may be welcomed and implementation may face fewer barriers. However, research must examine why, in any given country targeted for synthetic biology intervention, other methods did not work. It might well be that local, regional and national factors that prevented the uptake of existing intervention methods might also make a synthetic biology approach unfeasible.

In the end its important for people involved in the synthetic biology approach to Vitamin A deficiency to be aware of the barriers other Vitamin A intervention methods face, to be able to judge whether their synthetic biology approach is better in the pro/con trade off than the other intervention methods, to be aware whether their synthetic biology approach generates particular pro and con arguments locally and globally not generated by existing methods and to determine whether their synthetic biology method is more cost effective than existing methods.

Last Words

Our research produced evaluations on the Guelph iGEM team product which would have to be considered in order for its successful implementation. We are interested in continuing to collaborate on this project in hopes that it will one day contribute to reducing vitamin A deficiencies worldwide.

As a final note we would like to thank everyone on the Guelph team. They showed great courtesy and we have had a wonderful time collaborating with them. A special thanks goes to David Johnston in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph for keeping in touch, helping things run smoothly in this cross country collaboration, and for being so positive in the judgement of our contribution. It was great fun!

See attached full paper including tables (media:Final_Guelph_paper.pdf).


(1) UNICEF The challenge: Vitamin A deficiency. (2008). UNICEF [On-line]. at:

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