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Survey Analysis

Another way in which we sought to gain awareness about synthetic biology, and specifically our project, was through our survey. We designed a survey using an online third party survey generating tool, and then distributed this link through several sources. These included: social media, email, word of mouth and through other iGEM teams. As a result we managed to obtain 323 responses whilst the survey was active, and we gained quite a balanced set of responses, including: members of the public with little knowledge, leading professors and other students with varying levels of knowledge with respect to synthetic biology.

Before the questions began, we included a prelude to the survey which incorporated details regarding iGEM and synthetic biology as a whole. After speaking to individuals who took the survey they felt that this was a good way to begin and it provided them with some useful background information to allow them to make more informed decisions for the questions to follow. However, we also noticed from some of the responses that these details had clearly not been read by some individuals so in the future it may be better in terms of clarity to make this page stand out more, perhaps through strategic titling or clever background usage.

Qu. 1) If someone modifies an organism or cell such that it now has a new function, do you believe that the person has right to claim ownership of this modified organism?

We started the survey by asking the above question. As the results indicate the response was fairly even, and as a result the written responses reflected this. We had responses ranging from:

“The cell or organism should not belong to anyone”
“Noone has rights over other life”
“Does the plastic surgeon own the face that he helped create? He only enhanced it; but ultimately that face still belongs to the owner.”
to responses such as:
“Modifying cells/organisms in a particular way is its own unique work that should be as copyrightable as any other invention.However, if the initial organism were to reproduce and make other organisms that now have the same type of modified cell, I do not believe that progeny could be owned.”
“Yes as these new cells are a product of somebody's intellect, study and to an extent money through funded studies, they are therefore the intellectual property of that individual, they can then be marketed. Which in-turn can fund further develops in that area of science through research.”

These are just a few responses exemplifying some of the ideas that arose as a result of the question. We felt that to ask such a question (and the one following) in relation to intellectual property would be a good way to instigate people’s thoughts to explore the idea of what a patent is and whether when it comes to something such as cells and organisms, which are considered as alive, can we still uphold the same laws. This was a very topical question as recently in Australia, the Australian federal court ruled that isolated human genetic material can be patented. [1]

Qu.2) If someone modifies human cells, or maybe even a human, to have a new/modified function, can that person claim ownership of these human cells/human?

This question is largely the same as the previous, however has a subtle variation. This being that the question now addresses the subject of altering human cells or even a human. The change in result is drastic as you can see. From roughly 50/50 we reach 90/10.

From the responses and from the feedback we received, this question made people think more about the first and doubt their decisions. Many people who read this and thought “No” then went back to change their first answer to “No” as well. This kind of thinking was exactly what we wanted to get across with these two questions. How can one say that it’s ok to claim ownership of cells yet when they are human cells the issue completely changes?

This also leads further onto the debate of use of human cells, which we used as part of our project in the form of HeLa and Huh-7.5 cells. The ethics of using such cells, are quite varied and there are strong proponents for their use as well as those who oppose them, and the means through which they were obtained. This debate is rather interesting, but we will not go into it here and leave it to the reader of this page to research, should they wish to do so.

Whereas before the responses were largely even across the spectrum, the reasons against were more or less the same as those stated for the first question, however those for the idea of ownership had rather interesting reasoning:
“Ownership should only extend to the copyright over the modified segments of genetic code. The organism itself, however, is under it's own ownership if it has sentience. And as with copyright laws, no one may duplicate the genetic code with the intent of profiting from it without the consent of the author. This of course would exclude any work done BY the modified organism. Such as a job.”
“Technically yes. Obviously you would pay to have a modification done on you. You're paying for both a service and a product. The "product" used to belong them, so technically they were the previous owners; but once someone buys them, they are the new owners.”

These responses illustrate that there is clearly scope for debate with regards to intellectual property on a biological level, and if there had been more time, we would have liked to pursue these ideas further through forms of a public forum, or a debate, and see what would have arose as a result. However, as a standalone form, we felt that the combination of these two questions, illustrated the issue rather well, and the difference in result from the first to the second was definitely noticeable and illustrates how people perceive cells in relation to the subset that is human cells.

Qu.3) Do you believe Synthetic Biology is a dangerous tool, knowing that potentially dangerous organisms are being dealt with?

We then continued with questions pertaining to synthetic biology as a whole, and began to assess whether people felt that synthetic biology is dangerous as a whole. We included an option entitled “Other” so that people could express opinions about the (potential) dangers of synthetic biology without committing to saying “Yes” or “No” if they were unsure as to which category they preferred.

These responses included:
“It can be dangerous, however if it is regulated correctly then that is okay”
“Yes if handled improperly and without extensive safeguarding”
“It's a draw: it can be dangerous, but not necessarily always. It depends on the organism and the research.”
“Synthetic biology is a double edged sword. It has equally well advantages and disadvantages.As responsible scientists/policy makers, We need to make sure that the technology is not being for imparting the life-threatening dangers.”
“Yes and no, like most things the answer is not black and white. Perhaps strict regulation is required to make sure potentially dangerous organisms are not made, or if they are, are contained appropriately.”

We were hoping for a similar result to the one that we achieved whereby people were able to acknowledge that as is the situation with most fields within science, there is the scope for things to go “wrong” and dangerous things to be dealt/tampered with. However if we ensure stringent checks are in place, as is the case with all of science, then we can ensure that we are able to conduct research in an environment that is not only safe but conducive to good results because worries regarding safety are negated.

We felt that the varied result of this question, was surprising, we were expecting more people to be unsure as to whether the field would be unsafe and thereby answer using “Other”. However this could largely be due to the fact that we had iGEM teams, and other leading researchers in the field answering our survey, and as a result the response may have become slightly more biased towards “No”, as was the case. To counteract this in the future, and some of the email feedback we received, in hindsight, we should have distributed two separate surveys: one for iGEM teams and academics and the other for members of the general public. Then by combining the results we could have explored the varying responses. However, as is the case with most iGEM teams, due to time constraints we were unable to explore this option at the time.

Qu.4) Do you agree with the iGEM competition in providing a platform for students to explore Synthetic Biology?

The next question was more iGEM specific and wanted to explore people’s opinions towards the iGEM competition in the context of the previous question. We ordered this and the previous question in this order to see if the answer to the previous question would influence this answer. It was therefore surprising to see such a high proportion of people choosing “Yes” and agreeing that the platform is good for allowing students to explore the field.

For this question, generally, the “Other” response was not well used, and was mainly used by people to illustrate that they did not know what the competition was, despite there being an introductory page explaining the competition.

As a whole, this question, this was perhaps most illustrative that we should have had two different surveys. However saying that, a lot of personal feedback that we received from members of the public suggested that they quite liked the idea of the competition and that it was quite a good way to provide students with several transferable skills irrespective of their future area of employment. However it was definitely encouraging to see that many people agreed that the iGEM competition was a good thing and that it allowed students to explore innovative options to make the world a better place.

Qu.5) Do you feel that the current methods to safeguard society are stringent enough to ensure the safety of a population from biological weapons?

This question was interesting because we provided very little in the sense of prior knowledge regarding safety of biological weapons. So it was interesting to see that the response was very much 50/50. We restricted the option to just “Yes/No” to force a choice and from the feedback we received this is what led to the even split.

Many people replied back saying that they weren’t adequately prepared to answer this question so in hindsight it may be better to include more information regarding biological weapons in the prelude but nevertheless the result indicates that there is more to be done to convince the population that more stringent safety regulations are required. One response we received through email feedback referred to how the individual felt that the police force as it currently stands is not adequately equipped to deal with biological attacks, and when we discussed this as a team we felt the same, in that if there was to be an attack, what would the police be able to do? This led us to think more about the issue, and it would have been interesting to approach Members of Parliament and the police to see what their stance on the issue was.

Qu.6) Would you be happy taking medicine that is derived using bacteria and viruses which have been selectively modified to serve as a cure for a particular illness?

This was perhaps the most surprising result of our survey. When we designed this question we expected an overwhelming response in the opposite direction. To get the result as it was, was eye-opening because it illustrated people’s open nature and open-mindedness to taking medication that was not chemically derived as is generally the case.

This question was quite intriguing in that everyone becomes sick at some point, and to say that they would be happy to take medicine derived from living organisms shows that in today’s age, people are quite open in this respect and willing to do what is necessary to become better.

Our approach to this aspect was quite broad, and perhaps a single question doesn’t do it justice and as a result we also held an in-team discussion relating to this which brought forward several points, such as those who currently have to take insulin, take insulin that has been created through genetic modification. So it is not a new practice, but rather a potentially far reaching application of an existing technology.

Qu.7) How would you feel knowing that a weapon exists that could target a particular trait, or characteristic amongst individuals, eradicating them without any collateral damage?

We wanted to explore the issue of bioterrorism further [see other section] so we included another descriptive section to balance Qu. 6. This allowed for people to describe further their issues on bioterrorism and led to some rather hilarious responses such as:
“Target ISIS please”
“That sounds scary... jeepers!”

But jokes aside, most people reiterated the same overarching idea, that of fear. And they are probably right to do so. When we explored current safeguards, we felt a distinct lack of awareness towards biological warfare so by completing this task as part of the survey it was good to be able to highlight this, and it would definitely be interesting to seek opinions from those who could implement safeguards, as discussed in the analysis of Qu.5.

We felt that Qu. 5, coupled with this question illustrates people’s lack of awareness towards this issue, which is a real danger should synthetic biology experience major advancements. It would be as if a nuclear warhead that could pick off certain people, would be hanging over your head. An ominous thought if ever there was one.

Qu.8) The aim of our project is to create an RNA replicon system so that with a specific DNA sequence we can treat chronic diseases, including but not limited to: Diabetes, Alzheimer's and some types of cancer. To create our system we have used parts of the Hepatitis C virus, and tested them using live human cancer cells. Bearing in mind that we are a group of undergraduate university students, how do you feel about our project? Please discuss any aspect of the project below.

This question was entirely geared towards our project and gauging opinions about our project. This was an open box type question, in which people had the freedom write about any aspect they wished to.

We gained a plethora of responses regarding several aspects of our project. The responses included the following:
“I think it is amazing that students are offered the opportunity to work issues like this that have such large implications if successful.”
“Awesome and ambitious. I hope you are successful. I like the fact that you have taken the project into your own hands and the possibility of bioterrorism is a real threat.”
“Using virus as a tool to cure diseases, call gene therapy, is nothing new. However it is a very interesting research field and I think that it must be encouraged.”
“It seems to an impressive project, working with relevant and serious medical problems. For a summer long project it perhaps seems quite ambitious to an outsider, but I understand that any research into such fields is useful, perhaps mostly to your own studies (particularly the biologists). Good luck with it all :)”
“the hypothesis is valid and the way of bringing it about has been done correctly.”
“I feel the project sounds exciting and using virus to create RNA replicon for use for cure is something that will develop predominantly in the near future as one of the most base used components to explore further to aid all types of cures.” This was definitely pleasing for us to see, and the negative responses were rather sparse in this section, and many responses were more in line with those as above.

In terms of evaluating this as an approach to our project, we should have made clearer that we were also seeking constructive criticism and ways in which to improve our system as a whole. It was definitely a worthwhile exercise though as it put us in touch with M.I.T. and got us discussing delivery systems for their project.


As a whole this survey was beneficial to do, and I would recommend all iGEM teams to conduct a similar survey as part of their Policy & Practices. It allows one to gain many different responses with respect to different subjects as we did, and as a result allows for some significant data to be analysed. However as is the case with all surveys, it should be unbiased, and to this end we felt that whilst we had a wide variety of people answering the survey, it should also be made clear that we would have liked to sent out two surveys so that we could compare the results of both. One would have been for the general public and the other for academics and people involved in iGEM. Through this approach, we feel all bias would have been eliminated and although it was not evident in our results as such, it is clearer when looking through other past iGEM surveys that the survey was only ever completed by academics/those involved with iGEM.