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”.

In addition, we asked people about what they think of when they think about synthetic biology. We have compiled a list of their responses and mapped to their respective geographic locations.

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iGEM Tracks

Preferences for tracks have been compiled into a graph, and from the data, it appears that our sample has the strongest preference for utilizing synthetic biology for health and medical issues. Tracks such as manufacturing have a more mixed review.

We have constructed a map to depict variations in track preference based on location. Green pinpoints indicate a strong preference for the particular track (1 on the rating scale utilized, strongly agree) and red indicates a strong opposition for the particular track. The tracks that are represented include health and medicine, energy, environment, manufacturing, information processing and food and nutrition. On the map, the ratings for energy and environment are averaged to form one map due to constraints from the GoogleMap server (only handles a maximum of 5 map layers). Users can toggle between tracks to see the variability between tracks.


1. Opinions of Synthetic Biology

Results Based on Level of Education

Opinions regarding the benefits versus ethical concerns of GMOs appear to vary in similar ways throughout all educational levels. For the ‘high school’ and ‘some college’ groups, there seem to be a similar number of people who strongly agree or agree (light blue and orange) and who disagree or strongly disagree (yellow and dark blue). The proportion who remain neutral also appears to be consistent. For those with graduate degrees, there seem to be more people who are opposed to genetically modified organisms and for those with undergraduate degrees, more people have positive opinions.

Individuals who have received a higher level of education appear to support the teaching of synthetic biology more so than those of lower educational levels, though the trend is not obvious. Currently there are courses at Cornell University, such as ECE 3530/BME 4980: Introduction to Systems and Synthetic Biology, exploring 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.