Beyond the Bench

Communication on Synthetic Biology

While we were working on our lab project for the iGEM competition, we came across very interesting readings about how to communicate on the specific field of Synthetic Biology. This question came again as we started to contact potential sponsors for the team, and to communicate with media about our adventure and the goals we wanted to reach. Obviously, there was a whole kind of associations that the public could make with the simple words of « synthetic » and « biology », and as an emerging field, this technology is raising unique questions about benefits and risks.

What we planned

As this is the first participation of the iGEM-AMU team in the competition, we wanted to increase awareness of the emerging field of synthetic biology at two levels: first for our fellow-students in Aix-Marseille University, and then to a larger public.

We also initially planned to hold a small conference on Synthetic Biology at Aix-Marseille University that would be opened to a large audience, but we couldn’t manage to schedule it before the summer. We expect to present it in January 2015, and to include our feedback experience after the giant Jamboree in Boston!!!

In order to adapt efficiently our message to our public, we first tried to identify the key concepts to deliver an unambiguous and credible message. We are presenting here our feedbacks and the ressources that we think can be useful for the communication of every iGEM new team, when talking to sponsors, media, or a broad audience of non-scientists.

First, essential readings to get prepared...

Here are the some of the resources that were used during our brainstorming phase:

  • “Guide for communicating on Synthetic Biology” from the Synthetic Biology Project. (link)
  • “Communicating Synthetic Biology: from the lab via the media to the broader public”, Kronberger N. et al., 2009. (link)
  • “Synthetic biology confronts publics and policy makers: challenges for communication, regulation and commercialization.” Bubela et al., 2012. (link)

How we presented Synthetic Biology to the media

In the initial step of our project, the team wrote a communication document that was sent to the media in order to explain both the concept of synthetic Biology and the goal of the iGEM competition.

You can download our brochure here if you need more inspiration that you already have !

We also hosted here our press release, in french of course.

You can find on this page an article about the French iGEM Teams.

Following this, we got an interview with a journalist of the daily newspaper “La Provence” that was published on august 22, 2014.

“Following this article, we found that communicating on science can be difficult, especially as we are in the very first part of our project. Our goal concerns basic research, and no obvious or specific application can be given as an example of outcome. Yet, we were happy with how the journalist presented our work in the context of Synthetic Biology.”

How we presented the iGEM competition to our sponsors

Aimeric did an oral presentation of Synthetic Biology to the board of the FSDIE on October 2, 2014. The FSDIE is a fund for Aix-Marseille University destined to support students.

Student projects funded by the FSDIE must be described with clear objectives, actions, the evaluation method and presenting a balanced budget. Projects are evaluated competitively and the best are funded. The board constitutes a broad audience as it includes students, social workers, University teachers and administratives.

“I wasn’t sure about how the discussion would go, as the board of the FSDIE commission is composed of all kind of profiles, from scientist to non-scientist background. Most of the questions I had were about the iGEM competition itself, and how the participating students get involved and are trained. Safety in the lab and proper work supervision were also central points of the discussion.”

How we presented Synthetic Biology to “Fête de la Science”, October 10-12, 2014

The aim of the annual “Fête de la Science” in France (=French Science Festival) is to inform the public about developments in science and theirs implications for society.

Alexia presented a poster about Synthetic Biology and the iGEM competition during the festival, keeping in mind the guidelines we established for an optimal scientific presentation to a broader audience.

Here is Alexia's feedback about how she handled public questions and concerns during the discussion:
“When I attended the celebration of science, I knew that people could have concerns about genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) as they can ear and read a lot about it in the media. So I tried to start the discussion by a first focus on potential applications. For example, it would be useful to have organisms that could participate to environmental cleanup, drug development or nutrition of populations in developing countries. Then, I presented Synthetic Biology as an emerging technology to get efficient AND safe biological constructs that would fulfil these goals. I specifically insisted on safety and ethic questions. For example, I insisted that for our project, the biological constructs are manipulated in laboratory and can’t spread in nature without control. I also insisted on the fact that as an emerging technology, Synthetic Biology is deeply engaged into the reflexion about safety, as well as the economical and ethical aspects of science.“

Conclusion: our 3 key rules for a successful communication on Synthetic Biology:

After debriefing on both our readings and our experiences of talking to a broad audience about our project, here are the 3 guidelines that appeared essential to us for a successful discussion:


Identify yourself as a scientist. It is important that the public identify you as trusted source. From different surveys, Academic scientists and researchers are perceived as a trustworthy group of expert that work on maximizing technologic advancement while minimizing the risks.


The language has to be carefully chosen, with simple and unambiguous words ADAPTED to the audience. Jargon and abbreviations have to be avoided, as they tend to provoke misunderstandings and negative feelings in the audience. Also a metaphor can be useful, but be careful about the context, as it can be rephrased to a more sensationalistic message by media. Credibility is the key, as you want to present as balanced message between risks and benefits.


You have to be prepared to have a skeptical audience, tricky questions about ethic, safety and responsibilities for this emerging technology. You may even get very negative feedbacks on your presentation: it’s good to know it before, so you can be prepared! While we communicated on synthetic biology, we tried to stick to the facts. We also prepared some “harsh” questions using the Guide mentioned above (see p°23).

Overall, we felt that it was an amazing experience to be able to share our vision of our project with people, and to get their interest on the emerging field of Synthetic Biology.

It definitely was an interesting part of our project, beyond our lab “bubble”.

We are now look forward to present the technology and our experience of the iGEM competition during a larger conference that will be hold in Aix-Marseille University after the Jamboree.

And what's going on outside of the iGEM Aix-Marseille?

Other 2014 iGEM teams we interacted with:

  • Paris Bettencourt iGEM 2014:
    Go to their wiki

    The collaboration: The Paris Bettencourt team is willing to collect sweat samples from peoples all around the world. They will conduct different experiments on this samples, including characterization of the microbiome. We are happy to participate in their smelly adventure!!!

  • LiU iGEM 2014
    Go to their wiki

    The purpose of this survey is to examine how aware allergic- and non-allergic people are of peanut allergies and how their society handles and treats the needs of peanut allergic individuals.

  • Ben-Gurion iGEM 2014
    Go to their wiki

    The project of the team focuses on the Metabolic Syndrome. This syndrome is a cluster of medical conditions, including: abdominal obesity, elevated blood pressure, Insulin resistance, high blood triglycerides and more. The survey conducted by the team consists on the evaluation of our physiological condition before and after intense work.