Biosafety issues in Microbial Technology
Till date, all the products of the biotechnology industry have been found to be safe. Nevertheless, for all biotechnology processes, safety is of paramount importance. The main areas of consideration for safety aspects specific to biotechnology are:
• Potential of genetically modified organisms (GMO) or recombinant strains to infect humans, animals and plants to cause diseases.
• Toxicity and allergy associated with the use of microbially produced biomolecules especially the recombinant molecules.
• Problems associated with the disposal of spent microbial biomass.
• Safety aspects associated with contamination, infection or mutation of process strains.
When the microbes are to be used in industrial processes, it is preferred to use only those microorganisms, which are included in the 'GRAS' (generally regarded as safe) category. Also, when microbes are to be used as hosts for production of recombinant molecules, this should be carried out using GRAS organisms.
The main fear associated with the genetically engineered microorganisms (GMO) or recombinant strains is that they could escape from the laboratory into the environment with unpredictable and perhaps catastrophic consequences. It was believed that such released microorganisms could upset the balance of nature or that foreign DNA in the new microorganism could alter the metabolic activity of the host microbe in unpredictable and undesirable ways. Guidelines have been established to ensure safe working practices and levels of containment based on potential hazards. Many of the GRAS organisms found in nature have been genetically modified so that these may be used as host for production of recombinant biomolecules. At present, all new releases of genetically modified organisms are evaluated by expert committees on a case by case basis for various safety aspects before approval for their use is granted.
Besides these, whenever we are required to culture microbes whether for research or for industrial applications, we must follow good microbiological practices (GMP). These include:
i. Persons must wash their hands with germicidal soap after handling viable microorganisms.
i. Eating, drinking, smoking etc. are not permitted in the working area.
ii. Food is to be stored outside the work area in cabinets / refrigerators designated for this purpose only.
iii. Mouth pipetting is strictly prohibited.
iv. All procedures are carried out in a way, so as to minimize splashes and generation of aerosols.
v. After work with viable microorganisms, work surfaces are decontaminated thoroughly.
vi. It is recommended that laboratory coats / aprons should be worn while working.
vii. All cultures, stocks or other waste are decontaminated and autoclaved before disposal.