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Neuroscience + Synthetic Biology

In order to further investigate public opinion on fusing the controversial fields of synthetic biology and neuroscience, in terms of bringing genetic modification to the brain, and in so doing perhaps changing the very fabric of what makes us, us, we organised a ‘Speed Debate’ at UCL’s Print Room Café on the 31st of August 2013.

The Event

We decided on formatting the Speed Debate into two separate parts. The first part of the event would consist of guest speakers giving a short speech on their thoughts about the ethical and practical concerns of synthetic biology and neuro-ethics. The second part of the event, the main event, would commence immediately after the speeches. The audience is arranged into small tables of 6 to 8 persons. Each table was facilitated by one iGEM member to ensure healthy discussion and that valuable opinions and thoughts are noted down. After every 15 minutes, a new question was set for the room and the Speed Debaters are shuffled in a way that people meet the maximum amount of new people. This allows people to discuss and debate diverse set of people and ideas.


For this event, we specifically targeted a non-science based community. As a measure to diversify the audience we advertised through various means. We discussed with Dr. Hilary Jackson, the Public Engagement Coordinator at UCL, on how to reach and attract our target audience. We advertised our event through Facebook, Twitter, London Futurist Groups, Theories of Consciousness, Alzheimer’s Society and other platforms. Over 70 participants of all ages and disciplines attended the Speed Debate. We discussed and debated on neuro-ethics issues with people from wide and interesting backgrounds such as graphics design, journalism, Alzheimer’s Society, general practitioners, software, patient’s family members, just to name a few.


Key to our event, we had 5 guest speakers who gave provoking food-for-thought. We had speeches on synthetic biology by bioartist and C-lab representative Howard Boland, SynBio Society President Philipp Boeing, UCL iGEM members Andy Cheng and Alexander Bates, Shirley Nurock from the London Area Research Network of Alzheimer’s Society UK.


We arranged a room from 7pm to 10pm at the Print Room Cafe on the UCL campus. We chose this venue because it was a comfortable environment and had a bar, which provided the participants with alcoholic beverages, snacks and refreshments. Before the event, we decorated the room with thought-provoking quotes and a simple poster depicting our projec's genetic circuit.


We devised four key questions that debaters from all walks of life discussed in a friendly and informal setting. Below are the speed debate group discussion questions, and some of the comments we recorded from our guest debaters.

1) How do you feel about changing the genetic structure of organisms, to make materials of use in industries?

“God gave us the brains to ‘play God’ – so why not use them?” – Guest

“GMOs could push us backwards! We don’t really know what’s going on” – Guest

2) How comfortable do you feel about the use of synthetic biology in medicine?

“…many diseases are not just about death but serious human suffering – it would be wrong not to use this technology to try and find a solution” - Guest

“I’m comfortable with this, subject to proper risk assessment” – Guest

“Man’s reach often exceeds his grasp” – Guest

3) How do you feel about using neuro-genetic engineering (NGM) to change which genes exist, or to what degree genes are ‘turned on’, in your brain cells?

“Yes! It is changing your identity! However, change is a constant thing, change is natural” – Guest

“Better perhaps to let nature take its course” – Guest

4) How would you feel about the use of NGM enhancements and psychological therapy in society?

“... the mind is categorically different...” – Guest

“We should pursue this research for future generations, we don’t know how things will change” – Guest

“I am concerned by forced treatment to normalise behaviour. But I’m not sure why. Should a serial killer be reprogrammed? I think maybe that is okay…” – Guest


We took the opportunity to evaluate our audience’s knowledge and opinions on synthetic biology and neuro-genetic engineering via survey. For this, we asked them (before the event) to answer the following questions by giving a rating out of 10:

1. How confident do you feel discussing issues relating to genetic engineering?

2. How comfortable are you with using genetic engineering to develop new medical technologies?

3. How concerned are you that a person’s identity may be compromised by introducing new genes into the brain?

We also asked them to indicate whether or not they agreed with the use of both genetic engineering and pharmaceuticals in the fields of medicine (treating diseases), therapy (treating non-pathological disorders), and enhancement. Additionally, we asked them to answer the same questions at the end of the event, to gauge in what ways their opinions had changed.

We found that before the debate, the average person’s confidence in discussing genetic engineering was 5.8/10. It was pleasing to find that 69% felt more confident in discussing genetic engineering after the debate, with an average increase of 1.5/10. We therefore consider this event a success, as we have educated and increased people’s awareness regarding key issues in synthetic biology.

Before the debate, most people supported using genetic engineering in medicine, with an average rating of 6.6/10. However, people were also quite concerned about genetic modifications causing identity changes, with an average rating of 6.0/10. People’s feelings on these topics changed in interesting ways after the debate. There was no significant change in the average feelings of the audience. However, the opinions of individuals did change quite dramatically, particularly on the point of compromising personal identity – the average shift in opinion was ±1.7/10. The average shift for people’s conformability in developing GM based medicine was ±0.69/10. We attribute this to a combination of excitement the audience experienced with synthetic biology, whilst also being open about the potential risks of neuro-genetic engineering. Despite not causing any general shifts in opinion, we find these results encouraging, as it’s clear that people found the debate thought-provoking enough to change their opinions based on the information we provided and through discussions with other audience members.

In terms of the 6 treatments proposed, people’s opinions on the matter corresponded to what we had predicted – pharmaceutical options were preferred to genetic modifications, and medical treatments were more favourably viewed than the more controversial topic of enhancement.

Technique Medicine Therapy Enhancement
Genetic Engineering 76.1% 52.4% 38.1%
Pharmaceuticals 95.2% 85.2% 47.6%

Whilst pharmaceutical options were always favoured to genetic engineering, the difference was not always constant. With regards to enhancement, only 9.5% of people felt that a pharmaceutical option was acceptable, but genetic engineering was not – we believe this to be because the topic of enhancement is so controversial that people in general are more concerned with whether or not enhancement itself is acceptable – how we go about doing this is secondary. The greatest split of opinion was seen on the topic of therapy – 33.3% were for pharmaceuticals, but against GE. We find this one of the most interesting statistics from the debate – it seems that this topic really divides opinion on the role that neuro-genetic engineering has to play in society, whereas discussion on more controversial or less controversial topics generated more uniform opinions with regards to neuro-genetic engineering.