The IGEM Valencia 2011 team has carried out a survey about synthetic biology in order to discover the prejudices of the public about this field and to discover the uses they would give to this groundbreaking scientific discipline.
Besides, we specially wanted to find out Christians' opinion about synthetic biology. Therefore we attended the World Youth Day, which took place last august in Madrid, and asked the pilgrims.
The following questions were posed:
The aim of the first two questions is to know what people associate with the name “synthetic biology”. We have observed that the concept among the public is mainly tied to genetic modifications and to some of its applications, more concretely to food applications.
When summing up the different answers, we get that the 10 words that the respondents of the survey would use to define synthetic biology are:
Moreover, a nice tag cloud iGEM image has been created with the most commented topics in the survey:
The main conclusion from the words relation survey is that people in general think in bioremediation and health application for synthetic biology, but no so many know the industrial potencial for many real problems. Moreover there is not a clear understanding between Genetic Engineering and Synthetic Biology, so further efforts have to be made to explain properly the differences and benefits from the second approach.
In the second question each of the proposed images represents a field where synthetic biology can be applied. The most chosen answers are those related to transgenic products and genetic engineering.
After finding out the interviewees' prejudices we reveal in the questionnaires the meaning of synthetic biology through four definitions so they can choose the one that they understand better and they can give us afterwards their opinion about the risks that they think exist.
The best understood definition, by a great margin, is: Redesign and manufacture of naturally occurring biological systems which are given new capabilities.
Furthermore, among the risks that most worry the respondents we find the physical and psychological risks for human beings and the ethical problems which can come from the applications of synthetic biology. Other worrying problems, although to a lesser degree, are the possible alterations to nature’s balance and the creation of problems which could arise while looking for solutions.
We also wanted to find out to what field the polled ones would apply synthetic biology and what project or idea they would carry out if they had the opportunity to do so. We have found out the most demanded fields are medicine and food applications, particularly agriculture. Several proposals considered the possibility of creating a renewable and sustainable fuel or new drugs. Besides, there have been very interesting proposals, like for instance improving the interconnection between photosystems I and II of the thylakoidal membranes in single celled algae so as to increase CO2 fixation efficiency, design a biological printer to produce organs or boost the brain.
Finally, in regards to religion we wanted to know what the public thinks about the compatibility between Christianity and synthetic biology and if they consider the first should get involved in the second in an ethical way. The answers have been really diverse, but we can generically say that the majority’s opinion is that both things are fully compatible whenever the ethic limits are respected, and that Christianiy should get involved in synthetic biology since it has to evolve with society’s development and avoid a possible chaos.
Taking into account all the answers related to these last two questions, we conclude that everyone considers synthetic biology should have ethical limits, related or not to Christian values, although a great part of the interviewees have opted to involve religion, emphasizing the fact that a lot of great scientist have been believers or even citing biblical sentences. There is also a small group which considers that the church should not get involved because it could hinder scientific advances; they just think what is needed is to create some ethical rules.
More specifically, taking into account all responses related to these last two questions we conclude that all polled believe that synthetic biology must have ethical limits, they are related or not with the Christianity. A part of they have chosen to involve the religion emphasizing facts like that many of the big scientists have been believers, or even mentioning Biblical phrases.
Another group, however, believes that the Church should not get involved because it would stop the scientific advance since many members of the same would see it since one attempted against the life as we know it. They also think that the Church should reconsider certain criteria and opinions on this subject, which does not support or favor the evolution of his study.
Finally, a part of the polled ones, they value that the Christian foundations are one thing and science another, by what they should not be mixed.
We can finish emphasizing that for the people the important thing is that any type of scientific experiment respects the rights of the persons.
So IGEM-Valencia team has created a code of ethics taking into account a number of ethical and moral standards.