Team:KU Leuven/Outreach/Survey

Perception of synthetic biology


Can synthetic biology have a positive influence on the environment? Can DNA be patented? What kind of applications are socially acceptable? These are the kind of questions which often characterize a social debate. The social debate about synthetic biology is in a much further stage in the USA than in Europe [5] . On top of that, there are numerous important social organisations and public groups who didn’t formulate a clear opinion about synthetic biology [5] . This implicates that the current debate didn’t evolve in a particular direction which makes it even more interesting to carry out a survey on the current perception of synthetic biology. This survey was conducted among Belgian citizens, older than 18 (focus group) and led to 352 responses. Download the pdf-survey files in Dutch, French, English or German. In the sample, only 2 out of 10 respondents say that they know what synthetic biology stands for while 4 in 10 only heard of it. The other respondents have no clue about the meaning of synthetic biology. Considering the people who have some sense of what synthetic biology means, 46% associate synthetic biology with genetical engineering and modification. 32% of the respondents see it as something artificial and unnatural. 25% characterise synthetic biology by its applications where health care is mentioned in 44% of the cases while agriculture counts for 24%. A short collection of associations with synthetic biology from the respondents can be found in Figure 1

Do you approve synthetic biology in general

Figure 1
Words participants associated with synthetic biology. Click to enlarge

A remarkable fact is that respondents who are not professionally involved in synthetic biology, often cite elements of synthetic biology, but they are unable to give a comprehensive and clear description. Moreover, there are numerous fallacies about synthetic biology which can influence the opinion of the general public dramatically. Synthetic biologists often counter the hesitant and sometimes negative attitude of individuals with the existence of an information gap. This vision is supported by the research of McHughen, indicating the fact that people do not possess the necessary knowledge and information to formulate a relevant opinion on biotechnology [3] . But does supplementary information lead to a change in the acceptance rate of synthetic biology? After asking the respondents about their opinion on synthetic biology, they were given a well-balanced description of synthetic biology, including opportunities and threats. There is strong evidence that the acceptance level of synthetic biology is significantly different when the respondents are given a definition of synthetic biology. Figure 2 clearly shows an increase of 13.5% in the approval rate of synthetic biology which is mainly due to the decrease in neutral answers. The decrease in the number of neutral answers is most likely due to the fact that informed people make up their mind more easily.

Do you approve synthetic biology in general

Figure 2
Do you approve synthetic biology in general? Click to enlarge

Not “just” an application

A common saying about synthetic biology is that it paves the way for the development of a whole range of novel industrial applications in health care, biofuels, crop management, etc. However not every application can be valued in the same way. Previous research [1] [2] showed that the perceived usefulness of knowledge for the individual is crucial in his grasps of science and technology. This clearly shows the importance of the direct benefits of biotechnological applications to the individual [4] . This survey analyses how people evaluate various applications of synthetic biology. Although the use of synthetic biology in the human body often comes with ethical concerns, we see that 70% of the respondents have no problem with the use of synthetic biology to produce medicines, in this case insulin. The same can be said about biofuels as an alternative energy source, where nearly 50% evaluate it as very positive. The results about the environmental technology (reduction of pollutants) and agricultural applications (modified crops) show less transparent results, but there seems to be a tendency to consider it as a positive development.

Respondents defining synthetic biology

"I think of producing biological tissues and cells to replace natural and depleted resources."
"Synthetic biology sounds related to GMO’s where organisms are genetically manipulated."
"Tweaking the building blocks of life."
"It sounds like normal biology, but with adjustments made by human involvement."
"I see it as growing things from nothing."
"Fine-tuning organisms to combat diseases more efficiently."
"Artificially producing organs and human body parts."
"Synthetic biology makes me think of producing biological components in order to mimic and improve biological phenomena, for example tissue regeneration."
"Cloning and genetically engineering come to my mind, things that are lab-grown."

Ethical concerns

Synthetic biology often brings along ethical and social issues. At the KU Leuven iGEM symposium, a panel of experts in synthetic biology gave already their opinion about some ethical and moral questions. But this does not necessarily match with the opinion of the general public. Over 70% of the respondents see the potential of synthetic biology for the human well-being and environment. It is also clear that the patent debate is far from over. There is no public consensus about the desirability of patents in synthetic biology, but there is a slight tendency towards disapproval.

Plasmid A Plasmid B Plasmid B

Figure 3
Left: Synthetic biology can have a positive impact on the environment.,
Middle: Synthetic biology can have a positive impact on your life.
Right: DNA can be patented.

Even though synthetic biology is a promising field, that doesn’t mean that it is everywhere a “hot” topic. As the survey showed, almost 4 in 10 persons do not have any idea of its meaning. People that are unfamiliar with synthetic biology are often confronted with a lot of personal doubts and concerns. Each respondent was therefore asked about the aspect of synthetic biology that he or she wants to know more about. 28% of the respondents want to know more about the potential risks that come with synthetic biology, especially how the spread and survival of genetic modified organisms in nature can be controlled. Besides, 10% of the respondents is concerned about the adequacy of the current regulations around synthetic biology. 30% would like to know more about the applications and possible benefits which can be obtained. A minor 5% would like to know more about the scientific and technical aspects of synthetic biology. The doubts people have concerning synthetic biology are often considered as a consequence of the lack of knowledge and communication which is a popular statement between scientists. But what kind of methods are considered as a good way of building trust in the view of the respondent? 40% suggest to better communicate and inform the general public on what synthetic biology stands for in general. 28% specify that the benefits should be showed using applications. Many people suggest to use applications that are close to the individual’s every day environment where the possible disadvantages should not be neglected but rather explained and investigated. 14% of the respondents remarked that more positive publicity about synthetic biology is necessary to change the public perception.

There can be concluded that the work is far from done. A large number of people do not know anything about synthetic biology while there are still many fallacies circulating. Given this observation, we can not just sit back and watch the situation from a distance. If we want to make a change, even though it is probably a small one, then the only thing we can do is communicating and informing people. Or as a respondent puts it: “Unknown equals unloved.” Therefore we are visiting schools to educate and introduce children to the world of science (see education section). On top of that, we created an educative game and organised a symposium about synthetic biology (see symposium section), complemented by an ethical debate between current leaders, academics as well as entrepreneurs, in the field of synthetic biology.


[1] Ulrike Felt, Brian Wynne, Maria Eduarda Gonçalves, Sheila Jasanoff, Michel Callon, Maria Jepsen, Pierre-Benoit Joly, Zdenek Konopasek, Stefan May, Claudia Neubauer, Arie Rip, Karen Siune, Andy Stirling, and Mariachiara Tallacchini. Taking European knowledge society seriously. 2007. [  .pdf ]
[2] Alison Hill, Mike Michael, Peter Wheale, Rene Von Schomberg, and Peter Glasner. Engineering Acceptance: Representations of 'The Public' in Debates on Biotechnology. The social management of genetic Engineering, pages 201-217, 1998. [  .pdf ]
[3] Alan McHughen. Public perceptions of biotechnology, 2007. [  DOI ]
[4] Eleonore Pauwels. Public Understanding of Synthetic Biology. BioScience, 63(2):79-89, 2013. [  DOI | http ]
[5] Peter Raeymaekers. Design ontmoet biologie: synthetische biologie in Vlaanderen. Brussel IST. [  .pdf ]


Address: Celestijnenlaan 200G room 00.08 - 3001 Heverlee
Telephone: +32(0)16 32 73 19