Skip to main content

Gauging the ‘Yuck Factor’ of Synthetic Biology

A poll tries to get a handle on how far Americans are willing to take a chance on the brave new world of synthetic biology.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Much of the cutting edge of science today — stem cell research, synthetic biology, genetic modification — suffers from a vague creepiness, a sense among many non-scientists that this stuff just sounds unnatural (if not unethical).

David Rejeski, describes it as the “yuck factor,” offering a slightly more technical term.

Part of the challenge for the scientific community, though, is that public perception matters; it can influence investor confidence, government policy, research priorities and public debate. And suddenly, such front lines of science seem everywhere.

A federal appeals court on Thursday lifted the ban on government funding of embryonic stem cell research. And next week, the Food and Drug Administration prepares to hold public meetings on the first genetically engineered animal likely to appear on your dinner plate — an Atlantic salmon tweaked with the fast-growing genes of an ocean pout and the growth hormone of the Chinook salmon.

That case comes with a messy set of risks and benefits. Can we feed more people with genetically modified animals? What if they get out into the wild? Would that cause ecological damage and, if so, is it worth the benefit?

How many of us, instead of thinking through that mind-bender or any of the others associated with biotechnology or stem cell research, might just reach for the “yuck factor”?

“I think it’s very hard to imagine a scenario where that goes away,” said Rejeski, who directs the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “The problem with synthetic biology, it’s hard to imagine you could pick a worse combination of words. ‘Synthetic’ was cool in the ’50s — we had nylon stockings and vinyl records. Nobody talks about ‘synthetic’ now. It’s all about ‘locavores’ — locally grown, organic and natural.”

In focus groups, Rejeksi has actually watched the non-scientist’s mind work through the concept of synthetic biology by analogy.

“They go from synthetic biology to artificial life to, ‘Is that like cloning, GMOs, stem cells?’” he said. “They very quickly touch on just about all the third-rail subjects they could hit.”

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

The Woodrow Wilson Center has been tracking such opinion to understand how the public perceives cutting-edge science (and government’s relationship to it), but also how scientists might better explain what they’re up to.

This week, Rejeski released new polling data on what people think about synthetic biology, defined by the center as “the application of engineering principles to the fundamental components of biology.” Looking at the results, Rejeski places most of us into three categories.

One group opposes synthetic biology on moral or ethical grounds (and this correlates strongly with religion). No matter the application, these people object, and their moral misgivings may be an “immovable object,” Rejeski said.

The second group contains people — young, white men, for instance — who are not particularly risk-averse and feel optimistic about technology in general. Most of us fall into the larger third group, where our opinions are heavily swayed by the precise application of the science and the way it’s presented to us.

Based on what they knew about synthetic biology, 16 percent of the thousand adults surveyed thought its risks would outweigh the benefits (compared to 19 percent of people who felt the opposite).

They were then told some of the possibilities: Synthetic biology might one day craft new microorganisms that could lead to cancer treatments, cheaper drugs, cleaner fuels or substances that could break down pollution. But the field also carries moral concerns about how life is defined and fears that organisms could behave in unexpected, harmful ways, or fall into the wrong hands as weapons.

After told all of that, twice as many people decided the risks were probably too great.

The poll also presented two potential real-life applications. A majority was in favor of using synthetic biology to produce a flu vaccine, but three-quarters were uneasy with harnessing it to speed the growth of livestock from birth to butcher.

This raises another question: Can we have the one without the other? Can we get the vaccines without the weapons, the cleaner fuels without the moral ambiguity?

“I don’t think people are assuming there’s a no-risk scenario,” Rejeski said. “But most people have better things to do in their lives than make risk-benefit calculations on new technologies. They drive their kids to soccer, whatever. Who wants to do that? The general tendency of most people is to hope and believe somebody is going to cover their back on this one.”

That might be where government steps in. Surprisingly, the poll showed a greater faith in federal agencies than private businesses to keep an eye on this.