Engineer-it Kit and Safety
Is doing an Engineer-it Kit safe in the home or at school? Let's learn more about why it is safe.
Are the bacteria safe?
The primary “active” ingredients in this kit include a strain of bacteria called Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli. In western society, some forms of E. coli can cause food poisoning and are dangerous, but not the strain we use. In fact, most types of E. coli are NOT INFECTIOUS and are actually necessary for your guts to function.
E. coli have evolved for millions of years inside the large intestine of animals such as humans. By colonizing our large intestines they help us to digest food, create vitamins, and create amino acids. One strain of E. coli that is a widely used probiotic that helps to reduce bloating in the intestine.
The strain of E. coli that is included in the Engineer-it Kit is one that was first collected in the early 1900s by scientists. It has been used in thousands of labs around the world in countless experiments for nearly 100 years, with no reported incidences of harm. The E. coli within the kit also has further deficiencies than the wild type of E. coli in your gut. These deficiencies include:
- All bacteria have a protective shell on the outside of their membrane - it is called a “slime layer”. The strain of E. coli in the Engineer-it Kits have a very thin slime layer compared to the E. coli in your gut. This means that they are very susceptible to drying out, to death by acids (such as in a stomach), and death by soaps and detergents.
- Natural E. coli have a special DNA that enables them to share DNA with other cells. This enables them to give DNA to other cells, and get DNA from other cells. This helps the cells to survive and evolve. The E. coli strain included in the Engineer-it Kit does not have this special DNA, and therefore, cannot easily share DNA with other cells. This makes the E. coli very lonely as they cannot communicate with others and share DNA, such as antibiotic resistance.
All this considered, the Lab Strain of E. coli is considered very safe and this is why it is classified as a “Biosafety Level 1” bacteria by the World Health Organization (WHO). Biosafety Level 1 bacteria are not infectious and therefore do not pose a threat to the individual. This is why you are able to use this bacteria at home or in a classroom and don’t require a large lab that is monitored by the government.
What are Biosafety Levels?
Biosafety levels (BSL) or Risk Groups, range from 1 to 4, 1 being the lowest and 4 being the highest. Citizen science will operate at BSL-1 in 99% of the times since this is a level that is safe because it relies on use of microorganisms that are non-pathogenic - not harmful, and in North America, you can do these experiments without government approval. Learn more about Safe Science Practices
|Biosafety Level 1 bacteria are not infectious and therefore do not pose a threat to an healthy individual. This is why you are able to use this bacteria at home or in a classroom and don’t require a large lab that is monitored by the government. Level 1 does require basic safety procedures such as wearing gloves. Learn more about Safe Science Practices|
|Biosafety Level 2 organisms can be harmful to an individual but are easy to control, and do not spread easily - this is the flu, Hepatitis A, B, and C viruses, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), pathogenic strains of Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus, Salmonella. To do this work, you need a Government-approved lab space that includes specific equipment to contain the organisms and work in. You also need to follow specific lab safety procedure that go beyond wearing gloves.|
|Biosafety Level 3 and 4 use microorganisms that are infectious and would likely cause death if you came into contact with them. From Ebola to COVID-19, these are not microorganisms you want to work without heavy protection.|
Can the antibiotic resistance spread?
A very low concentration of antibiotics is used in the Engineer-it Kit experiment to help you grow only the cells that you have engineered. This works because when you engineer your bacteria, you give them antibiotic resistance. Your engineered bacteria survive and other non-engineered cells do not. A common question is about the danger of giving bacteria antibiotic resistance and how that relates to the antibiotic-resistant strains of “super bacteria”, such as MRSA, that we hear about in the news.
The antibiotics used in the Engineer-it Kit are rarely used in hospitals because resistance to it became common decades ago during the era of excessive antibiotic prescribing from the 1950s-1990s. Now antibiotics are prescribed much more carefully to reduce antibiotic resistance from spreading.
A second question might arise around the safety of the antibiotic itself. The antibiotic used is encapsulated in a gelatin shell, containing it, even if touched by bare skin. But, further, the amount of antibiotic in the capsule is about 5,000 times less than would have been typically prescribed for a daily dose to a child.
What if they get out into the wild?
A common question about genetic engineering is about the safety if something escapes from the lab. This is definitely a consideration in thousands of labs that use genetic engineering in their research.
As you will see when doing the Engineer-it Kit experiment, you will “inactivate” your engineered cells using chlorinated bleach. This is a standard protocol that scientists use in labs, simply to eliminate asking this question. The inactivation (killing) procedure that you use with the Engineer-it Kits is very effective and will kill all of your engineered cells.
If your cells did happen to get into the wild: Because they lack a slime layer and the ability to evolve through sharing DNA, they are highly susceptible to dying. See above: “Are the bacteria safe?”
When scientists complete more advanced genetic engineering experiments, such as with plants, insects, or mammals, there is a lot of discussions that occur to ensure the experiments are done safely and to consider the impact on the environment if the engineered organisms are to be tested out in the environment.
Find a full list of resources for biosafety and safe science here!
| The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has created some biosafety posters especially for the type of experiments you complete with Amino Labs Kits. These can be downloaded, printed, and put on the wall of your classroom or home workspace:
What is Biosafety (download)
Biosafety in Action: (download)
You can gain more context and understanding about genetic engineering by watching Amino Labs Youtube Videos. In the videos, you will see that “aseptic technique” is talked about and implemented. This is normal procedures that scientists use:
When you do the Engineer-it Kit exercise, you can sign up for a more in-depth online course on the educational platform, Udemy. This course is similar to the YouTube videos, however, it is more in-depth and you will have access to questions/answers from others who are currently or have taken the course.
If you have any more questions about the safety of the Engineer-it Kit, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d be happy to help!