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Cornell iGEM

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Human Practices


We surveyed a sample of our colleagues, peers, and community members (n=166), hoping to understand how individuals’ opinions about environmental issues and about the viability of synthetic biology affected their stated judgement of our synthetic biology application. We disseminated this survey using Facebook, E-mail, and other forms of social media. We also sent out invitations to all the iGEM teams who had their contact e-mails readily available on their websites. Of the respondents who provided a complete set of responses (n=162), a distinct minority (n=3) indicated that they either disagreed or strongly disagreed (on a 5-point Likert scale) with the use of synthetic biology to implement the following description of our project:

"This year Cornell iGEM will be focused on developing an alternative solution to heavy metal water pollution (i.e lead, mercury, or nickel). Our hope is to create a water filtration device composed of E. coli that have been genetically engineered to produce metallothioneins-a protein that has a high affinity for binding with heavy metals. In other words, water containing heavy metals will be pumped through the E. coli cells and the heavy metals will be taken out of the water and into the E. coli cells. Our hope is to design our device for point-source filtration, so attaching it to the end of a factory pipe filtering out heavy metal content before it enters the ecosystem. However, there are many other applications for our project."

As a result of the intense clustering of opinions, as well as the general homogeneity of demographic and educational background, we were able to learn several things about a similar population but cannot make a broader statistical claim about the interplay between background, an individual’s views about environmentalism, and their opinions about synthetic biology. Over 100 (n=106) of our respondents were students, most of whom offered rather robust definitions of “synthetic biology”.

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1. Opinions of Synthetic Biology

2. Opinions of the Cornell iGEM 2014 Project

Results Based on Location (Rural, Suburban, Urban)
Urbanicity, or the degree to which a location is urbanized, is an environmental construct with massive implications for many dimensions of an individual’s life, including their lifetime mental health, their exposure and tolerance for different types of information, and more. Our survey found that individuals living in rural areas were more likely to have strong positive views about water conservation, but that overall the percentage of individuals who “strongly agree” or “agree” with making a conscious effort towards water conservation are constant across urbanicity.

Results Based on Education Level
Overall, concern about water contamination rises with an individual’s level of education, a trend made apparent by the percentage taken up by “Strongly Agree” or “Agree” responses. This is consistent with statistical meta-analyses we’ve reviewed about the origin of environmental concern (see: Liere & Dunlap, 1980)

Results Based on Gender
Overall, the trends in responses are very similar for men and women. Responses to “I believe human activity is partially responsible for climate change” and “synthetic biology can provide solutions to environmental problems” are very similar. It appears that both men and women believe that humans are at least partially responsible for recent problems in the environment but are also hopeful that synthetic biology could provide solutions. An interesting offshoot of this project would be to investigate exactly how people anticipate that synthetic biology could help and specifically which environmental problem should be primarily targeted. The results from the questions ‘I am worried that there are heavy metals in my drinking water” and “I make a conscious effort to conserve water” appear to be more disparate. More men disagree that there may be heavy metals in drinking water and more women responded that they make a conscious effort to conserve water. It should also be noted that all responses are self-reported, leading to possible biases and skewed data. A more rigorous examination should be carried out in order to make stronger conclusions.


Although some conclusions can be made, a few cautions should be mentioned as a disclaimer. There are several aspects of our survey that can be improved upon, if this approach should be attempted again.
  1. Non-representative sampling: Our sample was distributed primarily via social network sites and email; consequently our survey sample consists primarily of undergraduate students. There is also a high proportion of teenagers and graduate students. Overall, a large proportion of our sample consists of young adults in suburban locations, who may have more liberal viewpoints. The sample is also heavily concentrated in the east coast of the United States. Consequently more diversity in geographical location and age should be emphasized in future studies. The snowball and convenience sampling of our survey prevents us from making more rigorous conclusions based on a representative sample.
  2. Self-Reported Data: Because all of our data gathered was self-reported, the results may be heavily skewed. For example, even though all survey responses were recorded anonymously, respondents may be more likely to respond with positive answers (“Yes, I make a conscious effort to conserve water”) regardless of whether it is actually accurate or not.
  3. Significance Testing: Results should be tested more rigorously to analyze whether the differences are statistically significant or due to chance variations.
  4. Sample Size: Currently, our sample size is approximately 165. There are slight variations with each separate analysis because some people omitted specific responses, precluding the inclusion of their data in the overall analysis. More samples should be collected to form a more representative sample.