Team:Macquarie Australia/Education



Synthetic biology is a relatively new and rapidly growing field of research, in which scientists seek to modify and produce existing organisms by the fabrication of artificial proteins, metabolic pathways or complete biological systems to induce new and useful functions. While this emerging research offers a huge number of beneficial products such the ability to produce cheap anti-malaria drugs or large quantities of biofuels, it also leads to a number of ethical questions that need to be addressed (Khalil and Collins, 2010). Synthetic biology is in the very early stages of development where the synergy between biology and engineering approaches are working towards developing this field of research and technology. It is during this stage that an ethical and legal analysis should be attempted, while also informing the public about the implications of this new technology, allowing them to have an input into the manner in which synthetic biology is regulated (Gutmann, 2011).

The idea

A number of initiatives have been put in place in order to educate the public about this new approach to biology, with the iGEM competition one avenue that aims to promote the advancement of science and education by developing an open community of students and practitioners in schools, laboratories, research institutes and industry.

When beginning the human outreach component of the iGEM competition, students brainstormed that one of the greatest concerns surrounding the synthetic biology was the communication barrier between the education sector and the industrial/research sector. In order to address this our iGEM team decided to reduce some of these communication barriers by approaching high schools and run small workshop classes that planned to widen their understanding of what exactly synthetic biology is, and how to address the ethical issues that surround this topic.

What we want to achieve

In order to connect our project with the wider community and to support iGEM's goal of fostering scientific education, our team has decided to develop a seminar which can be presented to secondary students which explores the concept of synthetic biology and examines the ethics and safety issues which are involved. This seminar would ideally be presented to year 12 biology students (as it complements the NSW High School Certificate Biology curriculum); however, we aim to make it accessible to the majority of secondary students. We have decided to focus primarily on the ethical and safety issues surrounding synthetic biology; in particular, we will describe the laboratory safety precautions we need to take, the ethical considerations of our project and the way that these issues reflect universal human practice in the synthetic biology industry. We will seek to relate these concepts to the students' experience of scientific practice.

Our Question

How did someone’s understanding of Synthetic biology, affect their view on the ethical issues surrounding the technology?

How we plan to answer this

In order to address this we organized with Green Point Christian College to host a workshop class where students will be surveyed before and after the class. The survey at the beginning of the session will help students to engage with the content and determine how their level of knowledge regarding synthetic biology affected their perception of the risks surrounding this topic. The survey at the end of the session will help students consolidate what they have learnt and assess whether an increase in someone’s understanding of synthetic biology helps change their perception of the risks involved. This second seminar will also allow us to assess how effective it has been and critically reflect upon its success, especially considering this is a first for the Macquarie University team.

The seminar itself will involve a brief overview of what synthetic biology and the iGEM competition are, in addition to a description of the iGEM 2012 Macquarie University project. It will also include an overview of the ethical issues surrounding synthetic biology and a more detailed examination of relevant case studies which will explore various ethical issues raised and how they were addressed. Following the seminar, we will facilitate a discussion amongst students in which they will work in collaborative groups to identify and discuss the ethical issues surrounding a specific issue of current relevance to our society. This will enable them to extend their knowledge and engage with the concepts they have been hearing about in a real-world context.


GUTMANN, A. 2011. The Ethics of Synthetic Biology: Guiding Principles for Emerging Technologies. Hastings Center Report, 41, 17-22.

KHALIL, A. S. & COLLINS, J. J. 2010. Synthetic biology: applications come of age. Nature Reviews Genetics, 11, 367-379.