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.

SynBio Breakout Sessions: what do they tell about our community?

Participants of the first EUSynBioS Symposium in April 2016. Image by Ona Anilionyte.

Participants of the first EUSynBioS Symposium in April 2016. Image by Ona Anilionyte.

Starting from a set of activities pursued by a small number of researchers, the discipline of synthetic biology has taken a remarkable trajectory over the past decade. However, the rapid growth of synthetic biology has also provoked concerns about its prospective impact on society and the environment, which needs to be addressed by future leaders of the field.

Taking a first step towards tackling this challenge, we recently brought together students and postdoctoral researchers from ten different countries at our inaugural EUSynBioS Symposium. Various aspects relevant to building a future vision for the young synthetic biology community were discussed by attendees in scope of our SynBio Breakout Sessions facilitated by experts from ecology, design, and science policy. What have they told about the synthetic biology community of the future?

SynBio Breakout Session on Diversity. Image by Christian R. Boehm.

SynBio Breakout Session on Diversity.
Image by Christian R. Boehm.

Embracing diversity is key, so agree participants of the Breakout Session led by Prof. Louise Horsfall (University of Edinburgh). However, the issue of diversity goes beyond gender and ethnic background of researchers. We should make an effort to include people from a variety of age groups, socio-economic backgrounds, and life-styles. Can a non-scientist be a true synthetic biologist? Or someone who only works part of the time because they choose to take time for family? We think yes, because otherwise we may miss out on a lot of different perspectives and potential for creativity. The synthetic biology community needs role models which appeal to various groups in society and can thus encourage both engagement and public acceptance.

SynBio Breakout Session on Responsible Innovation. Image by Christian R. Boehm.

SynBio Breakout Session on Responsible Innovation. Image by Christian R. Boehm.

A Breakout Session on the issue of Responsible Innovation led by Dr. Michele Garfinkel (EMBO) surfaced several issues about researchers’ responsibilities, including in what ways the public’s views of them matters. The session participants also discussed what the emerging idea of responsible innovation means and pointed out some possible concerns about the definition of the concept in the broader scientific community. Awareness about both responsible conduct of research and responsible innovation needs to be raised generally, and there was some agreement that it should be introduced as an inherent part of good research, reinforced through the scientific community itself both at the bench and by means of discussion sessions like the ones hosted on this occasion.

SynBio Breakout Session on Education&Outreach. Image by Christian R. Boehm.

SynBio Breakout Session on Education&Outreach.
Image by Christian R. Boehm.

Encouragingly, the vast majority of attendees of a Breakout Session led by Prof. Anne Osbourn (John Innes Centre, Norwich) were of the opinion that education and outreach were important, and they moreover felt a responsibility to be proactive in this area. Taking part in outreach and education was seen as a mutually beneficial activity, yet young researchers found it regrettably difficult to identify opportunities to become involved. On a related note, young researchers felt that opportunities for training in how to communicate effectively with an audience of non-scientists were rather scarce. To contribute to closing this gap, we (EUSynBioS) are actively looking for initiatives in the area of science education to work with members of our network.


So what is the synthetic biology community going to look like in the future? We do not know for sure yet, but the first SynBio Breakout Sessions revealed its promise: our community embraces a number of young researchers who deeply care about their impact on society and the environment. They are actively looking for opportunities to become better at engaging the public and communicating what they do to a non-specialist audience.

To realize this potential, the organizers of dedicated synthetic biology courses and graduate programs to be established over the years to come are challenged to incorporate relevant training opportunities into their curricula wherever possible. It is bound to pay off.

Written by: Christian R. Boehm

Disclaimer: Views and opinions expressed in EUSynBioS Pulse articles belong solely to the writer(s). They do not reflect the opinion of the Community, the Advisory Board or the Steering Committee.