Words, images, and gender perspectives as gauges of public perception of Synthetic Biology

by Anastasia Athanasakoglou


It is true that, as with all emerging technologies, public sentiment of synthetic biology is a crucial factor that shapes the trajectory of the research field. The attitude of laypeople towards the technology determines the level to which the outcomes, products and applications are accepted and implemented in everyday life and it contributes to the advancement of the field, influencing -among others- federal funding allocation.

A survey at the CosmoCaixa Museum in Barcelona, Spain, tried to capture public perception o Synthetic Biology, according to a recent EMBO report. Researchers from Valencia (Institute for Integrative Systems Biology University of Valencia-CSIC, Darwin Bioprospecting Excellence SL and Language Theory and Communication Sciences Department of University of Valencia) interviewed more than 35000 people of different age groups visiting a temporary exhibition at the museum. The exhibition used interactive displays to familiarize the audience with Synthetic Biology, giving a rounded overview of the field.In the end, the participants were asked to rate the disciplines ‘biotechnology’, ‘genetic engineering’ and ‘synthetic biology’ on a scale 0-10, from completely unfavorable (0) to totally favorable (10). The coordinators of the survey were admittedly surprised by the results. The average score for biotechnology was 7.210, for Genetic Engineering 7.147, while synthetic biology ranked last with a score of 7.001. While the differences are not big, the fact that the participants showed less preference for a discipline they had just explored, puzzled the survey conductors. Even genetic engineering, a discipline closely associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a prime example of negative attitude towards a technology, scored higher than Synthetic Biology. Parameters such as age, level of education and gender where employed to explain the findings. The outcomes: words, images and gender associations influence non-expert audiences in forming views and opinions.

The CosmoCaixa museum (Public Domain)

The CosmoCaixa museum (Public Domain)

Synthetic biology is arguably hard to define, has a broad spectrum of applications and overlaps with other disciplines in methodology and expertise. That being evident, lay-public confusion is somewhat understandable. Framing definitions, goals and outcomes has always been critical in shaping interpretations and played prominent role in acceptance or resistance of a new technology.Many agree that the name of the discipline itself leads automatically to negative connotations. Accordingly, the role of word selection and the use of certain forms of metaphorical speech when communicating synthetic biology can notably influence public perceptions.

Another interesting outcome of the survey at the CosmoCaixa Museum is the use of images in assessing technological disciplines. According to the report, when women scientists were depicted next to the questions, ratings tended to be higher. This result has mainly been shaped by answers of female participants, who consciously or unconsciously favored same gender scientists. Visual language is equally – if not more – powerful form of communication when it comes to conveying ideas. Next to use of images, the survey revealed another important dimension of science assessment, that of gender-based perception of scientists.

With big steps still to be taken, synthetic biology is catching up on public acceptance of emerging technologies. In our future scientific and outreach endeavors, we synthetic biologists should proceed with caution in choosing words and images. And as the story of synthetic biology is still being written, let’s just don’t leave the women out.


Anastasia Athanasakoglou is a postdoctoral researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. She completed her PhD in biochemistry of marine natural products at the University of Copenhagen, where she also worked on Synthetic Biology approaches to establish production of secondary metabolites in heterologous hosts. Currently, she is working on investigating and characterizing metabolic pathways in complex microbial communities responsible for degradation of environmental pollutants. Find her on Twitter and ResearchGate.