Human Practices

Glasgow Science Centre

On the 1st and 2nd of August, we presented a stall at Glasgow Science Centre as part of their ‘Meet the Experts’ event. This was our first chance to reach out and engage with the public to get real feedback about the things we had planned, which was overwhelmingly positive!

We used this opportunity to find out what our target market thought of Furri-Lux – to help with this, we had a large colouring-in picture of Furri-Lux’s logo for younger children, as well as blank paper for older kids to design their own ‘friendly monster’, all of which we displayed on a poster board next to our table. These drawings later became inspiration for Furri-Lux’s outer design, as we were particularly interested in which features children associated with ‘friendly’ and ‘scary’ monsters.
For their parents, we had flyers with information about iGEM, the competition, past projects as well as our project to take away and read at their leisure, along with an interactive ‘circuit quiz’ on how the bioluminescence system worked inside the cells. The right answer had to be placed onto the board for it to conduct, and light up the LED!

On the whole, many parents appeared very receptive to the idea of a children’s product incorporating bacteria, which was greatly encouraging. A common theme seemed to be that many parents believed their children were already exposed to a lot of much more harmful bacteria in every day life, so more education for younger kids was definitely needed.
However, their concern was apparent when we tried to talk to the children about ‘monsters under the bed’ – clearly this was a fear that parents were not immediately willing to validate, and they had put a lot of effort into trying to convince their children that these ‘monsters’ didn’t exist. Therefore, buying a product that offered help with this problem seemed contradictory and counter-productive.
We at iGEM Glasgow, on the other hand, feel that validating the children’s’ fears is more important to their healthy emotional development, as well as strengthening the parent-child bond as they work through it together.
Parents also expressed concerns that curious children would try to open the container themselves – which led us to design the removable handle for the bacteria’s release. To read more about this, see our Product Design page.

Hyndland School Visit

We had the chance to invite some senior pupils from the nearby Hyndland Secondary School to our lab, so that they could learn more about the iGEM competition and the other opportunities available to them at university.

Afterwards, we let them practice their aseptic technique by drawing their own pictures on agar plates with our glowing bacteria – and they came up a treat!

Most of the pupils were studying a course on Lab Skills, so we showed them around the lab we were working in and discussed the operation of some of the equipment they may not have had substantial access to in school – such as the autoclave and flow hood.

The remaining pupils were from their Advanced Biology course, who found the more in depth presentation of our bioluminescence system to be more interesting and insightful.

Glowing Plants Controversy

In 2013 a Kickstarter campaign looking for funding to create a glow in the dark plant attracted attention from not just the scientific community but also the general public. Backers of The Glowing Plant project were to be rewarded with seeds created from genetically modifying firefly and bioluminescent genes. The San Francisco-based group originally planned to create modified Arabidopsis thaliana plants as these plants are small and would hopefully make the finished product assessable to the public. Their main aim in creating the campaign was to “inspire and educate” people about synthetic biology and then eventually go on to replace street lights with trees. However this sparked a debate amongst experts and advocacy groups. Many feared that allowing genetically modified organisms to be distributed online may encourage illegal releases of other synthetic organisms or that the plants themselves may proliferate in the wild if grown in uncontrolled conditions. Others in the field of synthetic biology worried that such a project could damage public opinion and bring scrutiny upon current research. Due to this response, even with reassurances from the team that strict measures were to be taken to avoid problems arising, Kickstarter banned GMOs from being offered for donations to future campaigns. Omri Amirav-Drory, who created the project, was quoted as saying, “We already have the money, and we’re working on the project as we speak, transforming plants using DNA. But for me, I’m very sorry to see this, because it puts synthetic biology in the same category on Kickstarter as hate crimes and tobacco.“

We had originally thought about implementing our bioluminescent bacteria into a form of street lighting which would be in a fully contained system and in that way hopefully avoid any of the same criticisms. However after looking into the controversy surrounding The Glowing Plant project we determined, amongst other reasons, that research with a similar end goal may garner more negative press for the industry. With this in mind we decided to tackle this issue by instead focussing our efforts on education in the hope that we could change how the public would perceive similar projects in the future. What better way to do this than to start with the next generation of scientists, lawyers, parents and more. By creating a children’s toy incorporating genetically modified organisms which look after kids in the dark we will encourage the mentality that these advances in synthetic biology should be welcomed as helpful and with the correct safety are not to be feared.

Survey Analysis

We conducted a survey of 60 random members of the public to attempt to gauge how willing they would be to give our night-light to a child, and to ascertain their overall view of genetically modified organisms. A full list of the questions asked can be seen here.

In particular, we were looking at:
  • The demand for a children’s product in this genre
  • The respondents’ level of science education
  • How strongly people agreed or disagreed with 7 points:
    1. I would allow my child to have an educational toy that needed to be fed and looked after once a day with my supervision.
    2. I would allow my child to have an educational toy that incorporates E.coli bacteria.
    3. I would allow my child to have an educational toy that incorporates genetically modified bacteria.
    4. I would allow my child to have an educational toy that incorporates bacteria.
    5. All strains of E.coli are dangerous.
    6. E.coli regularly exists in my body.
    7. If these genetically modified bacteria were accidentally swallowed by someone, they would become dangerously ill.

For the 7 opinion points, we first assessed how they felt about them as it stood in that moment with their current level of knowledge on the subject, then allowed them to read more information about the bacteria we were using in our project:

What is 'synthetic biology'?
Synthetic biology is a branch of biology that combines the powers of biotechnology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, systems biology, biophysics, computer engineering, and genetic engineering (to name but a few) in order to construct 'biological devices' or 'machines' that are useful for solving problems - anything from something as trivial as chewing gum on the streets to solving climate change.

What are
E.coli bacteria are commonly found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded organisms (in other words, you and I!) where they make up the normal flora of the gut, produce vitamin K2, and prevent dangerous bacteria from growing. Most strains of e.coli are completely harmless, however there are one or two types that cause serious food poisoning - because of this, many people understandably assume that just because it's called 'e.coli', it must be very harmful, however this isn't the case! In our labs, classes and research, we use e.coli as they grow quickly and are easy to look after. The bacteria we use are a 'lab strain' which means we know exactly what their genotype is (the full set of genes present in the organism), and any and all dangerous genes or features that could cause it to infect humans and cause illness have been removed.

What are you doing to it?
Over the summer we have been working on taking bioluminescence genes out of a bacterium called Aliivibrio fischeri and genes from a cyanobacterium called Synechocystis that can detect UV-A light from the sun, and placing them in our
e.coli cells. When combined with some other standard genetic parts, the result is e.coli bacteria that glow when it's dark!

What are you using it for?
Our project involves designing a toy nightlight for children based around the idea of a "friendly monster", i.e. one that scares away the bad monsters under the bed! This would involve a stuffed monster toy, inside which would be a clear plastic container that would hold our bacteria. Every morning the child, with parental supervision, would turn a tap at the base of the toy, and the nutrient solution containing the bacteria would drop out of the bottom into the toilet to be flushed away. The handle of the tap connects via a key slot so that curious children can't open it and spill everything everywhere on their own. The child can then "feed" their monster friend by pouring fresh nutrient solution into their mouth, which passes through a tube through a one-way valve down into the main part of the vessel, so that if it were dropped or accidentally turned upside down the bacteria and solution would stay inside. There would be enough bacterial residue stuck to the inside of the container to allow them to repopulate during the day while the child is at school or nursery. Once they no longer detect the UV-A from the sun, the bioluminescence system becomes activated and they will begin to glow. At night the child would give the monster a gentle shake, which would allow oxygen to distribute more evenly among the bacteria encouraging brighter, more even bioluminescence.

Kids are mischievous and curious, what if they tried to eat it?
The bacteria are harmless, as is the nutrient solution they'd be in. The environment in the stomach would kill them immediately. However, it wouldn't taste very nice at all, which may cause them to bring it back up. Ultimately the child would come to no lasting harm and would not require professional medical treatment, just a big glass of water to get rid of the taste.

The same questions were then asked again, in order to see if providing more information about the details of our project would alter the public’s view on these points.

Market Research
The results here show that, although there are perceived gaps in the market for toys that fill any of the demonstrated criteria, there is significantly more demand for 'scientific' toys - because of this we moved the focus of our design more towards being an educational tool, rather than the other two objectives.

Overall Opinion Results
The participants of the survey were given a 5-point scale on which to grade their opinions of the bacteria – Strongly Disagree corresponding to 1 point, up to Strongly Agree resulting in 5 points. A 6th option of ‘Not Sure’ was also added (worth 0 points). The average of these responses was then calculated and is displayed below:

Figure 1: Overall Opinion Results - Initial opinions shown in purple on top of final opinions in green to demonstrate differences

From this, it is obvious that on the whole, the public responded well to the objectives we are trying to achieve, showing that more education is needed on the benefits that genetic modification and synthetic biology can bring to the future.

Effect of Education on Opinions
The responses were then observed again, this time according to whether or not the participant had a significant educational background in science. Those who answered that they had either no science education or had only achieved a high school certificate where separated into one set and those who answered that they had completed a college course or higher were separated into another set These results were then analysed in the same way.

Figure 2: Opinion Results - No Education/High School - Initial opinions shown in purple on top of final opinions in green to demonstrate differences

Figure 3: Opinion Results - College Education and Higher - Initial opinions shown in purple on top of final opinions in green to demonstrate differences

When a comparison was made between respondents with limited or no science background and those with a College/PhD level of science education, it was observed that the difference between the responses prior to and following the information provided about the project was greater for those with no science background. The observed improvement of public opinion on questions relating to E.coli and synthetic biology indicated that providing information and educating the public has a positive impact on their perception of the subject.

A less marked difference is seen between the responses prior to and following the provision of information to those with a higher level of science education, though these respondents’ responses also indicate an increase in likelihood to look more positively on the use of E.coli in synthetic biology and for the purpose of science education for children.

These differences in initial opinion about E.coli and synthetic biology between those with different levels of science education and the changes of opinion seen after educational materials on the subject were provided shows the importance of educating the public.


Bower Building, Wilkins Teaching Laboratory
University of Glasgow
University Avenue
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