Team:TUDelft/Ethics results


Results and discussion

This section outlines and discusses the results of the survey for each question individually as well as per subject. Furthermore, a summary of the results of the correlation calculations between questions can be found here. An abstract of the results and discussion as well as conclusions and recommendations can be found in the conclusions section.


The reason to ask the following rather personal questions is to get an indication of the sample's background. Although we already know they are practically all involved in the 2009 iGEM competition, questions about gender and home country can display the male/female ratio and denotes different cultural backgrounds.

Graph i.

i. How are you involved in iGEM?
A. Participant
B. Supervisor
C. Advisor
D. Other:

Of the 242 survey contributors, there are 60 people with an advisor/supervisor role, which equals 25%. It might be interesting to compare their answers to those of the 168 participants, to see whether a different relation (student vs. instructors) to iGEM and synthetic biology in general has influence on their opinions and perceptions. This will not be analyzed in a later stage.

Graph ii.

ii. What gender are you?
A. Male
B. Female

Although engineering in general mainly attracts male students, the iGEM competition shows a mixture of gender where 36% of our survey-participants is female. Although not discussed, one of the questions that might be interesting: could there be a differences between male and female answers on ethical issues in synthetic biology?

Graph iii.

iii. Which country are you from?
Open question

The colorful pie-graph already indicates the high diversity of backgrounds. There are 22 different nationalities involved in this study, which supports the independence of the overall study results towards cultural differences. Whether people with different nationalities have different perceptions/opinions on the ethical issues will not be discussed here, due to an uneven distribution of geographical backgrounds. The biggest contributors to the survey are expectedly the USA and Canada.

Reductionism and evolution

The following questions are an introduction to the main ethical issue: whether the reductionist approach in biology has any effect on our current perception of life and if so, how. The questions meddle with general traditional and established viewpoints. The general content of these multiple-choice questions comes back in the last open question, where the survey-participants could choose to write their opinion on what is life and whether the reductionist approach would lead to fully understanding life.

Graph 1.

1. Reductionism (also known as the top-down approach) aims to understand the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interaction of their parts. The reductionist approach has been applied to biology in order to understand the complexity of living things by studying its components (such as DNA, proteins, etc). Do you think that the reductionist approach will lead to understand life?

  1. No, living systems are too complex to fully understand, they have properties that cannot be explained by studying their individual parts
  2. No, biological phenomena are fundamentally special in a way that prevents them from being completely understood
  3. Yes, fundamental research in biology will eventually result in the ability to fully understand life
  4. Yes, we already understand living systems completely, due to the reductionist approach
  5. Other:...

  • This question is difficult to answer because it depends on future expectations. What can be seen from the results is that the synthetic biology community has very different believes. The group is practically split in two equal camps where 48% thinks that the reductionist approach will lead to understanding life, while 39% votes for the complete opposite. The majority of the latter group thinks that mankind will never be able to fully understand the mechanisms of life, because they have properties that cannot be explained by reductionism. Although not explicitly stated in answer A, this would probably indicate that they believe that biological systems have emerging properties that can not be explained using the reductionist approach.

The other-answers:

  • There was a very small group that did not agree on the explanation of reductionism as given in the question. The question states that reductionism reduces systems to the interaction of their parts and that it is a method to study systems by studying their components, while they believe that reductionism only applies to studying the individual components. Reductionism covers quite a broad field, it is explained differently and many definitions can be found. But the main theme that we tried to address is the scientific approach of working on complex systems top-down to understand them by studying the subsystems (both components and interactions).
  • The most open-answers indicated that although the reductionist approach might be limiting, it will bring us far towards discovering the secrets of life. Some blended this answer with an additional statement saying that when the top-down approach is combined together with for example systems biology and holistic approaches, we will/might discover the principles of life eventually.

Although not everyone agrees on the relevance of this question because we cannot know what the future will bring us, we intended to make people aware of this issue and able ourselves to think about this issue and its possible consequences to prepare ourselves independent of the eventual outcome. The big differences within our sample group show the importance of thinking about these subjects.

Graph 2.

2. Various people think that reductionism challenges the tradition which holds that life is valuable because it is more than "merely physical". The special status of living things and the value we ascribe to life may be changed by reductionism. If we assume that a thorough understanding of the mechanisms of life necessarily decreases the value life, should we then pull back from the pursuit of understanding life?

  1. Yes, because we can not foresee the implications that this knowledge might have
  2. No, understanding life is more important than the possibility that reductionism devaluates life
  3. No, because I do not believe that biology can change the meaning/value of life, the dimensions of the human experience cannot be explained exclusively by physics
  4. Other:

  • It is important to point out that this question is based on a hypothetical situation that might or might not occur in the future. The majority (82%) would not pull back from the pursuit of understanding life, mostly because they believe that the value of life cannot be changed by research, but also because understanding life is more important than the possibility of decreasing the value of it. Researching the principles of life should go on, the values and meaning of life will not be harmed because life cannot be explained completely by physics, says 56%.
  • The mass of the synthetic biology community agrees that the possible consequence explained in the question is either irrelevant or insignificant compared to the importance of research in this field.

The other-answers:

  • Of the 25 people who chose the other option, the plurality does not agree with the assumption made in the question. Most of them argue that understanding life does not necessarily devaluate life and some feel that it only enhances its value because it shows why we value it.
  • One statement says that "life" is just a description of a class of interactions, and therefore there is nothing special about it more so than the name. This is a rather materialisitic point of view, and shows a standpoint that is particularly assessed in question 16.
  • Some believe that the answer is a matter of cost/benefit, where the question depends on how much value life would lose compared to how many lives would benefit materially and intellectually. There is one argument stating that research should not aim for understanding life, but should rather focus their efforts on benefits for the public (in terms of e.g. medical research).

When interpreting the answers, it seems that the possible effect of the pursuit of understanding life as described in the question is not a reason to stop the research, mostly because people argue that the value of life cannot be changed or might even be enhanced by understanding the mechanisms of life. When including the other-answers, a majority of 90% would not pull back from fundamental research on the principles of living matter.

Graph 3.

3. In biology, evolution is the change in the genetic material of a population of organisms from one generation to the next. Should mankind modify organisms (direct its evolution) by the use of genetic engineering?

  1. Yes, because it has known benefits
  2. Yes, because we have the moral obligation to apply genetic engineering if it is possibly beneficial
  3. No, because we cannot foresee the consequences and implications of our actions when we interfere with evolution
  4. No, because evolution is a natural process that research should not interfere with
  5. Other:...

  • Synthetic biology can be explained as (re-)engineering biological systems with the use of genetic engineering tools. Most iGEM teams deal with genetic modifications and constructing BioBricks to achieve their goal, which why we expected most people to vote yes to genetic engineering. 62% of the survey participants believes that mankind should apply genetic engineering to modify organisms, mostly because it has known benefits, but also because of moral obligations towards the possible beneficial outcomes.
  • Nevertheless, 15% believes that the implications of interfering with evolution cannot be foreseen, and argues that mankind should not use genetic engineering. Only 4% thinks that evolution should not be meddled with because of its natural character. In total, 19% of the sample does not feel comfortable with genetic engineering in the light of interfering with evolution, which is more than we anticipated from a group expected to be involved in using genetic engineering principles.

The other-answers:

  • One primary theme that comes forward from the open answers is the usefulness of applying genetic engineering. It is often stated that genetic manipulation principles should only be used when needed, when it is useful for man or science. We need to have a clear goal before engaging in using genetic engineering tools.
  • Some focus on the risks and safety of these techniques. They state that researchers should be fully aware of the complexity and implications, analyze the risks and predict the outcome using models. One comment states that "organisms should be modified with care".
  • Others alternatively point out that genetic engineering has been going on for centuries in the form of selective breeding, so "why not?", an argument that was already incorporated in answer A.

The majority of the group thinks that modifying organisms by the use of genetic engineering should be available because of the (possible) benefits that it carries along. A minority of 19% is worried about the consequences that these techniques might have when meddling with evolution. Although the techniques are well studied, the complexity of DNA and the translation system are not yet completely understood and should make researchers use genetic engineering with care, and only apply it for beneficial purposes. A risk/benefit assessment could help identifying when these techniques should be applied.

Venter et al.

One of the biggest contributors to synthetic biology research and possibly one of the most controversial researchers in (synthetic) biology is Craig J. Venter. His project on creating a minimal genome is groundbreaking and raises a lot of questions, primarily by media machinery. How does the synthetic-biology-research community think about his research and bold statements?

Graph 4.

4. Craig Venter is one of the lead researchers in the minimal genome project. He intends to synthesize a bacterial genome from scratch, and then insert it into a cell (a Mycoplasma bacterium, from which the original genome is removed) to see if it can have the normal functions of the organism (Hutchison, 2003). Do you think Venter's approach is typically new?

  1. Yes, his approach is novel; he uses new techniques
  2. No, he just uses genetic engineering principles
  3. Other:

  • This question is based on the research of one specific group. Although some might not have heard of Craig J. Venter and his research, most people working in synthetic biology have heard/read about his project. Because of the controversial character that is assigned to Venter's research, we were interested about how the iGEM community perceives Venter's approach.
  • The media refers to Venter's research as "new", but the results show that a majority of 52% says that his research is not new, but is only based on engineering principles. In contrast 36% thinks his approach is new and that he uses new techniques, which makes the sample highly diverse in its answers.

The other-answers:

  • A small group is unaware of the research and honestly state they cannot answer this question because of insufficient specific knowledge of the research.
  • Most other-voters state that Venter is not doing anything new, but some of them nuance their answer by dividing it in two parts. The approach and idea of Venter is often considered new ("as new approaches usually are"), because this typical project has never been done before. Nevertheless, the techniques he uses are not perceived as new, but are categorized as standard genetic engineering methods.
  • Some mention that Venter is improving known genetic engineering approaches and that the combination of techniques is novel.

The most substantial result is that the synthetic biology community does not have a universal answer on this topic. Whether the research of Venter is new or not is apparently a difficult to answer question. Reasons for that can include that more specific knowledge on his research is needed, and that it is hard to when an approach or technique is typically new. Nevertheless, the technical challenges that Venter faces are acknowledged. The other-answers indicate that the tools of genetic engineering are not yet sophisticated enough to easily synthesize a complete genome.

Graph 5.

5. (See previous question) Venter says he will be able to create a life form artificially. What is your perception on his statement?

  1. Venter is playing God by trying to create a new life form artificially
  2. Venter is only applying genetic engineering to artificially change this bacterium
  3. Other:

  • Compared to the last question, the results here are much more coherent. The use of the words "playing God" in combination with (among others) Venter's research is often come across in news papers but also in scientific papers and other media, consequently giving his research a controversial character. The iGEM community is clear on this point: only 4% thinks that Venter is playing God, versus a 76% that believes Venter is only applying genetic engineering. Nevertheless, 20% took the opportunity to fill in their own answer.

The other-answers:

  • There are a range of different open answers that all depict a different aspect important for this question, such as the definition of life and "what is creating?". Although very relevant, these issues cannot be answered easily. The definition of life will be discussed later. What is more important is what this controversial research and what is written about it in the media does with the perception of the iGEM community. In regard to the last question it is remarkable that far less people are limited by their unfamiliarity of the actual research.
  • One small group is trying to find a way in between the given answers and explains that Venter, although not "playing God", is creating (artificial) life.
  • The plurality of the open answers indicates that his research is overstated by media, Venter is not creating life nor will he ever be able to. Some arguments that fund this statement: using existing materials without understanding its origin is hardly creating life and he would only create life artificially if he started out with man-made components only.

Although Venter is pushing the technology as far as it goes, over 80% (including the other-answers) does not believe that Venter is playing God by creating life artificially. Although depicted as controversial in media, the scientific community believes Venter is not creating life (let alone play God), but rather uses smart engineering principles to succeed in his goals.

Graph 6.

6. (See previous question) What do you think the perception of the public would be?

  1. Venter operates controversially by trying to create a new life form artificially
  2. It is just research, he is not able to really create life. He is only able to put biological components together
  3. Other:

  • This question should indicate how the synthetic biology community thinks that the public perceives Venter's research. Although researchers themselves believe that Venter is only using engineering principles, a majority of 51% assume that the public will think the research is controversial and that Venter is trying to create life artificially. Nevertheless, a group of 35% thinks that the publics opinion will be rather the same as theirs.

The other-answers:

  • A large group of the other-voters believes that communication is crucial, the public's perception on synthetic biology and specifically on Venter's research depends on how it is communicated to them. The media has great influence on the publics opinion through giving a new technology a certain positive or negative swing (more on this topic can be found in the Communication section).
  • There are also people who think that the public does not have enough specific knowledge to understand the complex principles of synthetic biology and the research that is going on to understand it.
  • Only a few have difficulties to envision what the public's perception from their own current point of view.
  • Some believe that poor communication of research will lead to fear in the general public.

It is hard to think for someone else, but in some cases one can estimate to a certain extend how somebody would react on particular information. In this case, the informed scientific community is asked to estimate the public's perception on the controversial research of Craig Venter. The answer's are diverse, where the majority (51%) thinks that the public will perceive the research as controversial and Venter is trying to create new life forms, while a relatively large minority of 35% of the researchers think that the public will think that he is only putting biological components together. From the open-answers one strong point was made, focusing on the importance of proper communication in order to inform the public objectively. Using statements such as "playing God" might work to draw attention, but can be interpreted negatively.


As outlined in the background information section, one of the main issues in synthetic biology concerns bio-safety and security. To obtain information on how researchers in the field think about this subject, we questioned the relevance of these concerns. Both the dangers of errors and terrors are addressed, as well as the attitude towards risk-taking in this emerging field of science.

Graph 7.

7. Synthetic biology may enable us to create biological systems artificially. There is a possibility that someone will create something dangerous. Are you afraid that synthetic biology might result in the production of a biological system containing some sort of error, which makes it hazardous?

  1. Yes, I acknowledge this possibility, but think it is not significant because there is sufficient regulation
  2. Yes, I recognize that this is a possible outcome and think new regulations/policies should be enforced, to minimize this possibility
  3. No, I think that researchers approach synthetic biology careful enough already
  4. No, I do not fear this at all
  5. Other:

  • The hazardous error, as appearing in the question is undefined and can be of any kind. This shows the problem realistically as it is currently not yet defined what the errors can be and how dangerous they can be become. A majority of 79% acknowledges that possibility of a hazardous error occurring sooner or later. 56% thinks that new regulations should be enforced to minimize this risk. Only 11% does not fear this, mostly because they think that researchers approach synthetic biology careful enough already.

The other-answers

  • Most claim this possibility but believe this is not inherent to synthetic biology. Every scientific field is susceptible to dangerous errors. Moreover, regulating for unforeseen consequences might be hard.
  • Some have mistaken the the probability of an unintentional error with intentional terror. They believe that regulation cannot overcome the problem of synthetic biology being used for terror purposes.
  • Risks are low for acknowledged institutes working in the field of synthetic biology, but the advent of DIY (do it yourself) Biotechnology, which can operate outside existing structures, brings a high risks of (possibly serious) errors.

Including the open-answers, 85% acknowledges the possibility of the production of a biological system containing some hazardous error, as a result of applying synthetic biology tools. The majority believes there is regulation needed to prevent this. 34% does not see this possibility as a real thread and think either that there is sufficient regulation already, or just does not fear this at all. One of the reasons why this issue has come up in literature and has been studied on during the SynBio conferences is that these circumstances are not new. Inventions such as asbestos and gunpowder have had hazardous consequences. It is hard to say whether new regulations can overcome the unforeseeable problems that come with synthetic biology. Correctly mentioned is the emergence of DIY biology, which can increase the risk of errors significantly.

Graph 8.

8. Are you afraid that synthetic biology might result in the production of a biological system that can be used for terrorist purposes?

  1. Yes, I acknowledge this possibility, but think it is not significant because there is sufficient regulation
  2. Yes, I recognize that this is a possible outcome and think new regulations/policies should be enforced, to minimize this possibility
  3. Yes, I acknowledge this possibility, but there is nothing we can do about it
  4. No, I think that researchers approach synhethic biology careful enough already and are sufficiently discrete
  5. No, I do not fear this at all
  6. Other:

  • Although the type of terror possibilities with synthetic biology are not defined, the opportunity of terrorists using genetic engineering as a tool for their actions is a concern that is proposed and discussed elaborately. There is a group of 79% that acknowledges the risk of synthetic biology principles being used for terrorist purposes, of which again most people think that new regulations should minimize this risk. Nevertheless, 25% of the sample believes there is nothing to do about this. A small group of 6% does not fear synbio-terror at all.

The other-answers:

  • There are mainly two camps in the open-answer group. The first does not fear the possibility of synthetic biology terror because they believe that terrorists have simpler options; there are far cheaper and more effective ways of performing a terrorist attack than through synthetic biology.
  • The other group assumes that even if strict regulations/policies emanate, those that would like to harm others will always bend or break the rules. Even though tight regulations are needed we need to consider the fact that a possibility is that the rules would be ignored, possibly for terror purposes.

Most people acknowledge the risk of synthetic biology principles being used for terrorist purposes, but in contrast to the previous question, there are much more people that think new regulation will not be the answer, mostly because they have the feeling that if terrorist want to use synthetic biology as a means to their own ends, they will find a way of doing that anyway. Nevertheless a plurality of 46% believes that enforcing additional policies can minimize this risk.

Graph 9.

9. The naturalness of a certain system is generally explained as "its quality of being natural or being based on natural principles". How do you perceive the risk of human interference with nature (for example, trough new technology)?

  1. If you cannot prove that these new technologies are safe assume they are dangerous
  2. If you cannot prove that these new technologies are dangerous assume they are safe
  3. If this technology really tends to get out of hand I will react, otherwise there is nothing to do about it
  4. I minimize the risk before doing the actual research
  5. Other:

  • The question focuses on how researchers approach synthetic biology research, how they deal with risks that are involved and tries to answer how a typical biological engineer perceives and manage risks before doing the actual research. In each answer there is a typical typology that captures commonly encountered types.
  • 25% of the sample could be called egalitarian, they invoke the precautionary principle because they are generally fearful and risk averse.
  • A smaller group consisting of 7% of the sample tends to focus more on the rewards of the risks in synthetic biology and could be called an individualist, approaching research optimistically and pragmatically.
  • The fatalist, 18% in the iGEM community, follows the principle "to duck when if he sees something about to hit him", meaning to stop the research only when something really tends to go (fatally) wrong.
  • The plurality of the group seems to act like professional risk managers. 39% would commission more research to find the right answer to any risks. In the case of virtual risks (culturally constructed risks, when science is inconclusive and people argue from pre-established beliefs and prejudices) this can be very uncomfortable.

The other-answers:

  • One remarkably statement asks "Who guarantees that nature is safe?". Moreover, it is asserted that there is nothing special about humans "interfering" with nature. It happens all the time, humans just modify their environment to a much more extreme degree than any other species.
  • A comparison is made between risks related to research in molecular biology and dangerous that are already occurring. Synthetic biology does not pose as a great threat compared to e.g. plastic waist in the oceans.

The answers on this topic are highly diverse, but the group is generally careful. Only 7% can be described as optimistic and fearless, whereas the plurality (39%) would conduct more research to minimize risks before the actual project starts.

Graph 10.

10. (see previous question) How do you think the public percieves this?

  1. If you cannot prove that these new technologies are safe assume they are dangerous
  2. If you cannot prove that these new technologies are dangerous assume they are safe
  3. If this technology really tends to get out of hand researchers should react, otherwise there is nothing to do about it
  4. Researchers should minimize the risk before doing the actual research
  5. Other:

  • This is again a double perception question, where the synthetic biology community is asked for their perception on the opinion of general public. When compared to the previous question, there is a big difference. The minority thinks that the public is much more fearful and risk-averse than researchers are. They believe that the public first wants proof that a certain project is safe, before pursuing any goals. 21% thinks that the public has more faith in researchers and assume that minimizing the risks before hand is good enough for doing the actual research.

The other-answers:

  • Only few took the liberty to give an open-answer, mostly illustrating the influence and importance of communication between researchers and the public on risk assessment.
  • One answer aims at influencing the public, stating: "how would you like the public to percieve this?"

Life, beliefs and opinions

The following are a set of questions that should indicate how the synthetic biology community thinks about life, what values they give to it, what it means to them, and to what extend it can be explained (reduced) in terms of physics. To a certain extend, these questions should make the reader aware that they are working with living systems with a certain worth but and make them think about how research may effect the value or perception of life. The ultimate way of applying the reductionist approach could well explain life, consequently have certain implications. Whether this point will ever be reached is doubtful. What is the scientific opinion?

Graph 11.

11. "Assume that research will show that life is only based on the interactions of atoms (biochemical reactions) with specific properties. Consequently, research shows that life is fully reducible and independent of special, holy, sacred or magical properties." Would you believe this information?

  1. Yes, and I would not have a problem with it
  2. Yes, but I would like to believe there is more to life
  3. No, I would not believe it, because there is more to life
  4. No, because it would devaluate my perception of life
  5. Other:

  • This question addresses the personal believes of the survey participants towards the properties of life. Science has meddled with traditional (religious) believes before, for instance when Copernicus proved in 1543 that the Earth is not the center of the universe. This information was not easily accepted. Life is frequently related with special, sacred or magical properties. The participants are asked to assume that research shows that life is based only on biochemical reactions (the interaction of atoms), a scenario that might never be true but some scientists are still searching for.
  • Although 67% would believe this information, 30% would still like to think that there is more to life. This means that the hypothetical assumption displayed in the question if ever come true, would be accepted by the majority of the scientific community. Nevertheless, 15% would hold on to their traditional believe that there is more to life. Only 5% would not believe this information because it devalues their perception of life.

The other-answers:

  • The plurality of the other-voters states that science has already shown this hypothetical assumption to be true, and indicate not to have a problem with it.
  • Some have never thought about this before and have difficulties answering the question until the situation actually occurs.
  • There are references to semantics and emerging properties that will make life never fully understandable.
  • One finds it hard to indicate what people could consider 'special' or 'sacred', and suggests that being sacred and purely biochemical are not necessarily mutually exclusive qualities.

Most importantly, the results demonstrate that most participants will accept the information that life is fully reducible. Further research should indicate how the general public feels about these issues. Properties like special, magical or sacred are arbitrary and in this respect lack a specific definition. As fairly indicated, sacredness and purely biochemical properties do not have to be mutually exclusive properties.

Graph 12-1.

12. I accept that God's hand is involved in life
Please indicate on a scale of 1-10 how much you agree on this.

  • The graph shows one outstanding bar, representing a 44% chunk of the group that does not accept that God has a hand in life. An additional 16% leans toward denying that God has a hand in life. 22% (4,5,6,7) is not sure whether or not they agree with the statement and a minority of 19% does accept God's hand in life.

Graph 13-1.

13. I believe that life is holy/sacred
Please indicate on a scale of 1-10 how much you agree on this.

  • In contrast to the previous question, the statement saying that life is holy/scared is answered more diversely. The group that has a tendency of rejecting the statement is equally big as the group that embraces it (both 36%). A relatively large group of 28% does not have a particular view on the holiness or sacredness of life and sticks to the middle.
  • Even though the majority of the group does not think that God has a hand in life, the believe that life is holy/sacred is still very much divided, which indicates that there is not a necessary relation between the existence of a God and sacred or holy properties of life.

Graph 14-1.

14. I think that the properties of biological systems can be explained by their reducible subsystems
Please indicate on a scale of 1-10 how much you agree on this.

  • This topic has been the red thread through out the survey. This question should give a direct answer to how the scientific community perceives the capabilities and the prospects of the reductionist approach.
  • There is a plurality of 43% that is strongly leaning towards believing that the properties of biological systems can (some day) be explained by their reducible subsystems. A very big group of 42% is not yet sure what to expect, while a minority of 14 % has a more holistic point of view and believes that there is more to living systems than just it's subsystems.
  • The lack of a majority that either agrees or disagrees with the statement shows that there is no concise answer for this question. Although many people think that the reductionist approach can reveal the properties of biological systems, there is an almost equally big group that is not yet sure about this. The 14% that does not agree with the statement are assumed to believe that the reductionist approach is limiting in explaining life, because either other approaches are needed or because life can never be explained by science.

Graph 15-1.

15. I think that a complex living system is more than the sum of its biological components
Please indicate on a scale of 1-10 how much you agree on this.

  • This question is kind of contrasting to the previous one, and works from a different angle where people are asked if "the whole" is more than the sum of its components, the holistic view on complex systems as appear in biology.
  • Compared to the previous query, this one show a more universal answer, where a majority of 65% agrees with the statement, indicating that they support the existence of emerging properties. 23% is not yet sure whether or not living systems are more than its components, and a minority of only 13% is rather sure that biological systems can be explained by their reduced subsystems.
  • The majority of the scientific community support the holistic approach of describing complex biological systems where emerging properties appear when putting the biological components together. The question remaining: can we ever characterize the emerging properties? Can a living system ever be explained completely materialistically?

Graph 16-1.

16. Life is physical and can be explained materialistically
Please indicate on a scale of 1-10 how much you agree on this.

  • With materialistically is meant that all things are composed of material and all phenomena are the result of material interactions. The statement made is quite extreme, and might go even further than question 14, where systems were stated to be explainable by the reductionist approach. Nevertheless, the outcome is almost the same. The group agreeing on the statement is 40% versus 19% that rejects the statement. Again a rather large group does not choose sides and keeps his answer in the middle.
  • There might be a conflict between the traditional perception of life where it is thought that living systems are just too complex to understand and the breakthroughs in science getting closer and closer towards explaining life. Will the scientific community ever be able to reveal the principles of life completely, or will there always be things we cannot understand? Supposedly time will tell. Or not, depends on what you believe. Although research has given us indication that life is purely physical and can be explained materialistically, until it is actually explained as such the chance is there that mankind will never figure out life.

Researchers and the public

General interest in the reasons for people to work in synthetic biology leads to the first of the following question. Insight in the goals of synthetic biology can help in defining the fields were possibly more regulation is needed. One of the problems in science in general is the way to communicate research to the public. It gets even more difficult when controversial subjects raise ethical issues that might be hard to understand without any scientific background knowledge. Should the scientific community inform the public about every detail, or is the material to complex to communicate? Should ethical questions be dealt with together, or should the scientific community self-regulate and decide on dilemmas without informing the public?

Graph 17.

17. What is your goal in synthetic biology?

  1. I aim to explain biology in terms of physics and chemistry
  2. My priority is gaining and sharing knowledge on novel fundamental biological processes in life
  3. I would like to see that my research on non-natural occurring biological systems is being used for social objectives, such as curing cancer or making bio-fuels
  4. With synthetic biology I would like to create a bridge between biology and computer science, to use biological systems for machine-like purposes
  5. I hope that my research in synthetic biology will be used in the industry, consequently giving me finanicial benefits
  6. Other:

  • For this question multiple answers could be chosen, which means that when summing up the scores for the individual answers it will exceed the 100%. The pie-graph shows the recalculated scores that sum up to 100%.
  • The most popular reasons to work in synthetic biology that has been voted for by a majority of the group is both gaining and sharing knowledge of fundamental processes in biology (52%) and the social objectives, using synthetic biology for applications in medicine and the bio-fuel industry (53%). Sharing knowledge is one of the main goals of iGEM, including the extension of the openly accessible PartsRegistry. One of the issues that arise from sharing all this information concern safety (is there a chance that the information falls into wrong hands?) and legal issues (patenting rights, who owns what and who is responsible when something goes wrong?). Although great for fundamental research, there are some drawbacks to sharing knowledge openly. Social objectives were expected to be favorite, both because a lot of iGEM teams are working on systems that relate to social goals.
  • Remarkably, only 15% is hoping that synthetic biology will give them financial benefits.

The other-answers:

  • Some goals that were not described in the answer list include creating novel engineered living systems, the will to know what separates the life from non-life, to have fun, to be challenged, to consider ethical issues, as a way to accelerate human evolution towards ideality, to re-calculate the probability of life occurring spontaneously extra-terrestrially based on the ease/difficulty of synthetic biology. One participant just loves Drew Endy.

Graph 18-1.

18. Advances in synthetic biology should be communicated to all of society.
Please indicate on a scale of 1-10 how much you agree on this, with 10 being full agreement.

  • As has been stated in earlier questions, communication of scientific research to society is useful for a number of reasons. One of the bottlenecks is the correct approach. The majority of the synthetic biology community (61%) agrees that scientific advances should be communicated to the society. 28% is not sure about that and 11% does not agree with this. Although communication to the general public is important to keep research transparent, scientists are also obliged to communicate because very often the tax-payers are the ones who eventually fund the research.
  • A few reasons why communication of advanced research is not so popular amongst the minority of the group, include the uninformed state of the general public which makes it hard to explain research correctly, and the chance that media (newspapers etc) might give an inaccurate or even negative feature to the project.

  • Informing the public is perceived as necessary, but the media apparatus and the scientific community should generally work together on getting a clear unbiased and easy-to-access story on paper rather than making controversial and misleading headlines to draw the wrong attention.

Graph 19-1.

19. The scientific community and the public have to work together in addressing key ethical and religious concerns.
Please indicate on a scale of 1-10 how much you agree on this, with 10 being full agreement.

  • When compared to the previous question, researchers in the field seem to be even more concerned about debating on ethical issues with the general public than communication advances in the research. A majority of 72% believes that the scientific community and the public have to address ethical and religious concerns together, 27% is not sure, and less than 1% does not agree with that.
  • One of the reasons that this statement is even better supported than the previous one, is that ethical issues might be easier to address to the public. Moreover, the ethical and religious issues might concern the public more than advances in synthetic biology research. They are more directly involved in consequences from general issues in synthetic biology (such as life-related questions, but also bio-security)

  • Debating ethical issues in synthetic biology together with the general public is perceived to be important. Ways of doing this is by researchers working together with representatives of the general public, most likely governmental institutions to identify, characterize and possibly find solutions to issues emerging from synthetic biology.


When discussing ethical questions concerning the implications of the approaches in synthetic biology, the ultimate questions that always come up are: what is life? and what is natural?. Although these questions are possibly never fully answerable, there are a lot of different definitions going around and people have different opinions on it. The questions before are partially a means to help answer these questions. Can the reductionist approach ever lead to an explanation of life? Even though we tried to focus on a narrow subject in all the ethical issues that are raised by synthetic biology, the questions that involve life are still too massive to handle. Famous philosophers have thought about comparable dilemmas centuries ago. The prospects of synthetic biology re-initiate the discussion, a result of researchers working on the brink of understanding and creating life. How do the people involved in the iGEM competition think about life?

Graph 20.

20. What constitues life? Is the reductionist approach limiting in explaining life?
Open question (optional)

  • The pie-graph shows that 35% of the survey-participants took the time to write a few lines on their definition of life and whether or not the reductionist approach is limiting in explaining life. We use this together with the amount of open-answers as a measure to indicate that the survey has been taken seriously. We are very grateful for all the input. First, the typical answers will be identified and summarized. Subsequently the more noticeable answers will be discussed.

  • A list of properties that defines something to be considered life (usually come across as a combination of several of the following), the existence of:
    • negentropy (negative entropy)
    • evolvement and the ability to adjust to environment
    • reactions to external stimuli
    • interaction of biochemical processes
    • the ability to proliferate (reproduce)
    • an information storage system
    • metabolism
    • defined outer-limit (such as a membrane)
    • sum of components and its interactions
    • Self-sustaining
    • emerging properties
  • Although the list is very comprehensive, many people still argue that there is no description nor a complete set of specific criteria that can define life. A reason for this absence of a clear definition is that we do not have the capabilities to create one. We are part of what we assume is life and therefore never capable of objectively characterizing it, is what many people suggest.

  • The participants have extensively described their thoughts on whether or not we might be able to understand life, and what could be the right approach for achieving that. Remarkably, no one suggests that it is infeasible to understand life without a definition for it. Nevertheless, there are numerous other suggestions why understanding life might or might not be possible in the future. What seems exceptional is that many use human life as the standard of understanding life, most probably of its complexity. The most apparent answers are described here.
    • The problem of the observer, we cannot define life because we are life. The reductionist approach is limited because we (mankind) are limited.
    • Some believe that we (mankind) are a complex series of biochemical reactions that lead us to interact with our environments the way we do. Although synthetic biology might help us to understand the mechanisms behind the operation better, it runs the risk of becoming too detached from humanity and "life", which could be dangerous in reducing the image of ourselves as "the sum of our parts".
    • Some think that life is the results of molecules bumping into each other and positive and negative charges interacting, which is sublime. They are not afraid of taking religiosity, mysticism, or magic out of human existence, but rather focus on taking a moment to appreciate the true magnificence that is a human being. "We are, simply, trillions and trillions of atoms, bumping into each other. How much more magical can you get?" Different questions are proposed, such as "Where do atoms come from?" and "Why are we here?".
    • Science strives to understand life mechanistically, but there is a feeling amongst some survey participants that there will always be elements that mankind cannot understand as we are unable to see the entire picture. The reductionist approach is limiting because there is always "room to go deeper". However, as innocent as reducing life may appear to be it also has the ability to devaluate our perception of life itself. It is this fate, more than any other possible negative consequence, that is the true threat of synthetic biology and science as a whole.
    • The reductionist approach is limiting to the extent that it does little to explore the emergent properties of complex systems which may be at the core of our perception self-awareness and other concepts usually considered to be meta-physical in nature; the nature of our soul and the need to assign meaning to life (beyond mere survival).
    • A beautiful paradox that one might or might not agree with: although life is not consciousness, strangely enough for us, consciousness is life.
    • As in chaos theory, combining biological subsystems to make a bigger system, that is considered to be living, such as a bacterium (or else) is more than just the combination of their properties. The constituting subsystems are not inert with respect to each other. Instead there is crosstalk, which results in emergent properties of the entire system, none of which were part of the subsystems. This concept has nothing magical or superstitious about it. It is merely the manifestation of the butterfly effect in chaos theory. Emergence adds a layer of complexity that is much more difficult to unravel than to understand subsystems individually because it requires a full understanding of all subsystems and their mutual interactions. In any case, the reductionist approach is necessary to get to this stage because it simplifies the initial characterization of subsystems.


The survey was created with the possibility to do correlation calculations on certain questions after all the results were obtained. There are strict guidelines on how to conduct a survey when it is used to show cross-correlations between the results of multiple questions, to show significance levels of typical levels, or to be able to generalize certain answers as if the whole group supports them. Although our survey does not completely follow these guidelines (the main aim of the survey was to raise awareness of the discussed ethical issues), some correlations were calculated for the proof of principle.

The questions expected to correlate and assessed based on methods described in the methods section include:

  • Q4 and Q5_____NC
  • Q5 and Q6_____NC
  • Q7 and Q8_____NC
  • Q9 and Q10____NC
  • Q12 and Q13___NC
  • Q14 and Q15___-0.22
  • Q14 and Q16___+0.27
  • Q15 and Q16___-0.28
  • Q18 and Q19___NC

From the scaling-questions (in this case most suitable for correlation calculations) Q14, Q15 and Q16 seemed to correlate slightly, where the negative numbers indicates a negative correlation, meaning that when for question X someone assigns the score 1, the expected score for correlating question Y is 10. NC means no correlation.
Analyzing if questions are answered differently between the two types of gender and between students and supervisors/advisors is still in progress.