Genetic engineering is polarizing our society – That’s the conclusion drawn from our survey based on over 300 participants. The lack of knowledge towards this field of biology is one main reason why it is viewed so critically. As a team, we thought about how to better synthetic biology’s reputation. We figured that we needed to make people concern themselves with this topic. As young scientists, it is a matter close to our hearts to get off the ivory tower and engage the public. We got involved in conversations and even discussions. Our aim was not to talk down to people, but instead to respect their worries and try to ease them. With this, we reached out to every age group and every social class in our home city Kaiserslautern. While local events can greatly impact people’s minds, we wanted to reach all of Germany. That’s why we also reached out to local and national media. Our special interest, though, was in the younger generations - They are the ones searching for solutions to unsolved problems like climate change and mass extinction – because they have to. They are open-minded to new approaches and willing to change their views when confronted with new information. The time has come for introducing the society to the value and magnificent chances of genetic engineering in environmental protection, medicine, industry, etc!
It all started with a survey about genetical engineering and how people perceive its risks and potentials. To find out what the public really thinks and what they know about synbio, we took it to the streets of Kaiserslautern.
The majority declared that they think the plastic pollution is a very large problem and that they see the need for action. Regarding genetic engineering, people said that they liked our approach but had concerns about GMOs escaping into the wild.
We quickly got into contact with all kinds of people: students, parents, children, retired biologists and senior citizens. We realized that there were many information gaps waiting to be closed, and that’s what we did.
The results of our survey show the opinion of the general public towards our project and solving the problem of plastic pollution with the help of synthetic biology.
What are the chances of synthetic biology?
Solving environmental problem, disease, medical progress, helping developing countries, higher yield, improvement of life standards, there are no limits.
What are the risks of synthetic biology?
No long-term study, where do you draw the line, overpopulation, influence on the environment and other species, misuse of genetic engineering, manipulation of mammals.
How do you judge the problem of plastic pollution? N=276
Is there a need for solving the problem of pollution by plastic? N=276
What do you do to prevent plastic pollution?
Lunchbox, glass bottle, using a cloth bag, avoiding plastic packages, no plastic straws, no coffee-to-go, no disposable tableware.
Do you see any risks in the project Chlamy Yummy (everything happens under controlled conditions)? N=275
We started with the youngest, as their minds are malleable and their natural curiosity makes them fun to work with.
We organised a 45 minutes presentation at the “Kinderuni”, an event that takes place annually at our university. Each week a professor gives a talk about their discipline in a way that catches the interest of children between 6 and 12 years old. It was a great honor for us to be allowed to hold this talk.
The children’s response was very encouraging and they participated with a lot of enthusiasm. We talked about genes and the basics of genetical engineering. To spice up the presentation we performed a DNA extraction with a tomato
Next, we wanted to reach out to high-school students around Rhineland-Palatinate. Therefore, we got in contact with six different schools in the area of Kaiserslautern. To allow a proper discussion we focused on the 10th to 12th graders and gave a 90 minutes presentation about genetic engineering and iGEM. We were able to answer a lot of questions about genetic engineering and opened a new perspective on the topic. The students, as well as the teachers showed a lot of interest in what we had to say and were grateful about the up-to-date view on this rapidly developing field.
The word of our mission spread around and schools even sent requests for us to visit their biology classes. Because of this high demand and because some students were extraordinarily interested, we decided to invite the students to our lab to see to get the iGEM experience themselves.
Our presentation informed the students about synthetic biology and gave them the chance to judge based on foundational knowledge.
Do you think that the opportunities or risks of genetic engineering predominate? N=113How the general public filled out the survey.
Do you think that the opportunities or risks of genetic engineering predominate?N=163 How students filled out the survey after our presentation about synthetic biology.
How do you judge the idea of using a GMO to solve the problem of plastic pollution? N=113
How do you judge the idea of using a GMO to solve the problem of plastic pollution? N=163
Students Internship: A Deeper Insight
For the dedicated students, we organized a day in our lab. That was, they could get a better understanding of a biologist’s work and even participate in some experiments under our guidance. We believe that it is important to encourage young people willing to devote their time and effort into changing the world for the better. That’s why we happily welcomed the students to our lab.
After organizing many human practice events for different age groups, we wanted to do something big. As a team, we collected ideas on how to approach the people that are not familiar with biological methods and synthetic biology and we came up with the idea for an art competition. The art piece should relate to genetic engineering, but the use of materials and the art style should be free. To emphasize the topic of the art competition, participants were asked to write a short text about their art piece and to explain their view on genetic engineering. To incorporate people within large range of age, the assessment was split into three age groups: up to 11 years, 12-17 years and 18+ years. We extended our range by reaching out to other iGEM-Teams. The teams were asked to collect art-pieces at their local schools, cultural centers, friends and fellow students.
Students Information Day
The Students Information Day is an event for future TUK students. High school students interested in attending our university can gain insight to the courses at the TUK. Despite the rain, we could raise interest for the department of biology. We were glad to present such a great possibility as iGEM for biology students. We offered some microscopes and prepared brain slices and other interesting specimens as eyecatchers.
Genetic engineering is a powerful tool and its possible applications need to be regulated and well considered before they can be called into action. The recent example of the genetically modified crispr/cas-twins helps us recall our responsibility to not only focus on what’s possible, but to also keep in mind the ethics behind our actions. A discussion about the ethical fundamentals is way overdue. That’s why we organized a panel discussion in cooperation with the Department of philosophy and ethics. The event started out with us giving a general presentation on genetic engineering. Afterwards Prof. Henn, vice chairman of the german ethics council focused on the chances of gene editing in medicine, all while shining a light on the ethical implications and dangers of this new technology. We closed the event with a discussion during which we answered the questions of the audience. With this event we reached a lot of middle-aged people with strong interest in genetic engineering.ds.
Information Desk at the Supermarket
A very popular method to reduce plastic waste is avoiding plastic bags for shopping. Thus, we had the idea to engage with people at the supermarket. We helped bagging their groceries while we explained our project to the public. Donations were used to finance a breakfast with the “Workshop for the handicapped Westpfalz” in Kaiserslautern. This was a great opportunity to catch people in their everyday lives and chat with them about this very controversial and polarizing topic.
A Day with the Sheltered Workshop
Everybody is affected by the effects of genetical engineering and the accompanied controversy. To not miss out on anyone, we invited about 40 handicapped people of all ages for a breakfast at our university. After enjoying the gathering, we followed up with a presentation about genes, genetic engineering and our project. We finished with some joyful experiments like elephant-toothpaste and Haribo-cannons. Our guests had a really great time and we are sure they learned quite a bit about synthetic biology.
Genetical engineering is a modern technique to find solutions for current problems. Due to its novelty, the older generation is not familiar with its possibilities. Many people regard the topic somewhat sceptically. By presenting our iGEM-project at the “Gartenschau Kaiserslautern” and explaining the benefits of genetical engineering we could demonstrate the advantages of synthetic biology. We met people of all different kinds, but the elderly showed the most interest und participated most actively in the conversations. This gave us a valuable insight into the concerns of the public. We found out that the idea of an alga solving the problem of plastic pollution comes across, but people are concerned of a GMO escaping into the wild. To address this issue, we decided to work with an auxotrophic strain and felt reinforced in the idea of working in a bioreactor.
Exhibition for the Elderly
Our team was invited to the exhibition for the elderly and we happily took the chance to reach out to the older part of our community. The feedback was again very positive. People were glad about the commitment for the local seniors and we could also achieve our goal to inform about genetic engineering.
State Parliament Politican
Andreas Rahm, the local government representative of Kaiserslautern visited our lab and we talked to him about genetic engineering, sewage plants and legislation. He was very interested in our approach of a biological recycling and stressed how important the whole plastic controversy is to him.
A project as relevant as plastic-degrading algae arouses the interest of the media. We had the chance to appear on the radio, in newspapers, in online magazines and even on television for several times. Our media presence is not only great advertisement for the biology studies at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern, but also great to promote the iGEM-competition and synthetic biology. We believe that by this, we got a lot of people to think about genetic engineering. The biggest journal we reached, the “heute-journal” has a traffic of 1,5 million visitors per day.