The UK’s first public dialogue on synthetic biology gives early and preliminary insights into public perceptions and reactions to synthetic biology, and provides a baseline of awareness in Great Britain. Commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering and conducted by People Science and Policy Ltd, it found that the British public gave a cautionary but positive reaction to the technology.
Synthetic biology is an emerging multidisciplinary field underpinned by engineering and science. It is the design and engineering of biologically based parts, novel devices and systems and the redesign of existing, natural biological systems.
This study aimed to explore people’s perceptions, awareness, hopes and concerns regarding this new technology. It comprised an exploratory dialogue activity with 16 members of the public attending two meetings in London, and a nationally representative telephone survey of 1,000 adults in GB.1
Awareness, perceptions and understandings
Awareness of synthetic biology is low. None of the 16 dialogue participants had heard the term ‘synthetic biology’, neither had two thirds (67 per cent) of the survey respondents.
When asked ‘What words come to mind when I say synthetic biology?’, 49 per cent of survey respondents said ‘don’t know’ or ‘nothing’. Other answers focused on words such as ‘artificial’, ‘unnatural’ and ‘man-made’, or ‘genetics’, ‘cloning’ and ‘embryos’. The illustration – a word cloud - represents the frequency of responses: the more frequently a word appears, the larger it is in the word cloud.2
Another theme to emerge was ‘replacement’ tissues, organs and limbs. Similar words and terms were suggested by the dialogue participants.
Modifying and creating life
Creating life was seen as ‘very futuristic’ and ‘exciting’ by the dialogue participants. Over six out of ten (63 per cent) survey respondents agreed with the statement: ‘Creating new man-made micro-organisms that will produce medicines or biofuels should be supported’. Furthermore, more (46 per cent) respondents disagreed rather than agreed (24 per cent) with the statement: ‘Re-designing an existing micro-organism so that it produces medicines and biofuels should not be allowed’. Four in ten (39 per cent) survey respondents agreed with the statement: ‘The idea of creating man-made micro-organisms is worrying’.
Thus while there was a positive response to the concepts of creating and modifying micro-organisms to produce medicines and biofuels, there is still some concern over the technology.
Regarding people’s priorities, biofuels was the application that the dialogue participants most wanted to succeed, as it was likely to impact on the largest number of people.
Control, safety, regulation and testing of production methods and products were seen as paramount. Participants were largely supportive of micro-organisms being kept in controlled conditions (for example, fermentation vats) to produce medicines or biofuels. However, there was resistance to organisms being deliberately released for bioremediation. Most were against so-called ‘garage biology’ where people conduct biological experiments in an unregulated environment, such as their own home.
Generally, participants expected the media to react negatively and they recommended that scientists should raise public awareness. They also thought it important for the public to keep an open mind and not to be swayed by media reports.
Government funding was thought to be important, partly because participants believed the field worthy of development, but also to give government influence.
A number of different themes emerged that would be worthy of further exploration. These include how people determine whether something is alive; whether micro-organisms are seen to be alive; and why there appear to be different reactions to modifying existing organisms and the creation of new ones.
The full report is available from: http://www.raeng.org.uk/synbiodialogue 
1 The poll was conducted by ICM research Ltd
2 The word cloud was created by http://www.wordle.net/ .