Blue-green algae and the ethics of “synthetic biology”

At our regular group meeting in September we will hear a presentation on an interdisciplinary student project which is investigating the development and use of a genetically modified material to neutralise the toxins in blue-green algae. It’s part of an international competition which the students are taking part in – see here for more information.

Blue-green algae causes problems on water bodies around the world, and is caused by high levels of nutrients in stagnant water which result from agricultural practices and other forms of pollution. In Dundee, it has led to the closure of the Clatto reservoir to water-based recreational activity since 2006. Various ideas have been tried previously to tackle the problem, with only limited and temporary success.  The students will present their proposed method, and there will be a discussion on the ethical issues and risks involved in this type of innovation.

We oppose genetically modified crops for a variety of reasons including the consequences of GMOs escaping into the wider environment and the unethical methods used by multinational corporations to promote the use of their GMO seeds – but do we oppose the use of GM organisms in all situations, such as tackling serious environmental problems?  If the toxins are neutralised, but the algae is still there, will people want to venture onto the water again?  Shouldn’t we be trying to tackle the source of the problem, rather than this attempt at an end-of-pipe solution?  These are just some of the questions that might be discussed.

Why not come along and contribute to the discussion on 25 September?


Following a good debate with FoET members and others from the university, the students went to Lyon in October and duly won the European competition.  They go on to the world final being held in Boston, Massachusetts, on 1 November.  See this web report.