Online workshops about genetic modification in biotechnology
We organized a series of three workshops about different aspects of genetic modification and
its use in biotechnology. The workshops aimed to educate people about genetic modification
and the arguments used the discussion about this topic. To determine if our workshops helped
in understanding genetic modification in biotechnology and if the opinion of the
participants have changed, we started and ended with some questions about the knowledge and
opinion of the participant. All workshops had a small discussion session after introducing a
concept to reflect on the information.The series consisted of the following:
1. Genetic modification: the how to's and why's
The first workshop aimed to give the participants an overview of what genetic modification
is, how it is used and which arguments are being used in the discussion about genetic
modification. We started by defining genetic modification, stressing that multiple
definitions are used. Then, we described different methods by which genetic modification is
achieved, dividing them in traditional and modern. We presented some applications of genetic
modification in different types of microorganisms (bacteria, yeast, fungi and viruses): we
discussed biofuel production, medicine production, food and beverages, bioremediation, gene
therapy and Li-ion batteries. In the end we explained some of the pros and cons that can be
encountered when discussing genetic modification. In the final discussion, we monitored the
opinion of the participants. Based on it we could conclude that this activity improved
knowledge about genetic modification and the workshop would enable participants to form an
educated opinion about genetically modified organisms.
2. Genetically modified organisms today
The aim of the second workshop was to give an overview of the use of genetic modification in
biotechnology. We focused on explaining how genetic modification is used in biotechnological
processes, why this can be a good alternative for industrial production and which challenges
biotechnology is facing. To illustrate our story, we introduced some applications that make
use of genetically modified organisms such as the production of biofuels and bioplastics and
waste water treatment. We gave some examples of products that are on the market or of
specific organisms that are used for the production of specific enzymes. We finalized by
discussing how comfortable people would be if the use of genetically modified organisms was
incorporated in some everyday life products. The participants of this workshop were
optimistic about the production of bioplastics and biofuels by genetically modified
microorganisms, although some doubts about the economic feasibility of these processes were
3. Exploring the potential of (genetically modified) microbes
In this workshop we aimed to give an in-depth view on how problems in biotechnology
concerning genetic modification are solved, using our own project as an example. We dived
deeper into the concept of strain instability as one of the challenges that applications of
genetic modification face in biotechnology. We explained why and how it occurs in industrial
settings Besides, we introduced some potential ways to overcome strain instability:
increasing genomic stability, growth uncoupling and growth coupling. This was followed by an
introduction to metabolic networks. This led us to explain with our project, Forbidden
FRUITS, how we could make use of the concept of growth coupling, information from databases
and metabolic networks of microbes to find strategies to achieve stable production of
compounds of interest in a sustainable fashion. We finalized by showing the proof of concept
for our algorithm, using the microbes and products that we worked with, and which would be
the potential applications of the microbes that we worked with if our strategies were
successful. In the end, we encouraged a discussion about which products would be interesting
to produce using growth-coupled producing microbes. Even after a workshop, some participants
remain reluctant to the usage of genetic modification in general. This webinar has helped
nonetheless to gain more confidence about genetically modified organisms in biotechnology
and to feel more comfortable using everyday products made by genetically modified organisms.
Switching to virtual workshop, however, resulted in lower participation than initially
expected. Therefore, the discussion sessions were biased to the opinion of too few
participants. Although we were not able to get much feedback from the workshops, we have
learned that there are different opinions when it comes to genetic modification and that
education is appreciated by both sides of the discussion. Besides, we shared the recordings
of the workshops on our youtube channel and by sharing the link on social media. In this
way, we hope we can educate more people.
Blog about the iGEM competition of Kelly
One of our team members, Kelly, was given the opportunity to write three blog posts about
biotechnology and our project for the website biotechnologie.nl. This website is part of a
series of activities for the public to teach people about biotechnology and the societal
impact. In the three blogs, Kelly told the readers about our project, sustainability and the
iGEM competition. We also made a small video, showing one day in the lab. With these blogs
we aimed to show people about the possibilities biotechnology gives to our society and how
we are working to improve processes to work towards a more sustainable future.
The blogs can be found using the following buttons
With the intention of reaching out and getting more people involved in our project as
well as getting some financial support for our journey during the competition, we
ran a crowdfunding campaign from June 2nd until August 1st using Indiegogo. In this
campaign we presented our project to the public hoping to get them engaged. We
described what motivated us to start this project, why it is relevant and why it has
potential to contribute to a more sustainable world. We wanted to show people that
we were highly motivated to develop our algorithm and that we were aware of the
challenges that we would face during the process. Challenges not only due to the
regulations that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic but also to the inherent
unpredictability of scientific experiments. We hoped to convince people using the
promotion video we made. By communicating about how we would cope with working from
home and how any result could be seen as valuable in science taught us how much
people are willing to get involved in a project despite knowing the risks that it
This campaign allowed us to engage with people by means of two strategies:
As a form of giving back for the support received by those who decided
to support us with their donations, we offered different perks depending on the
amount donated. Three of these perks were specially aimed at interacting with people
in a way that would facilitate them asking questions and learning about
biotechnology and genetic modification. The first was the possibility to ask us a
question via email, which would also help us understand which concerns people could
have when learning about our project. The second perk included a virtual lab tour,
where we could show the contributors how projects like ours look like in the
research phase. Besides, this perk allowed us to learn from the questions that could
come up. Finally, we offered the possibility of presenting our series of webinars
(from the Facebook workshops) in a more personalized way, where we would have also
learnt from the discussions that are motivated by each webinar. Unfortunately for
us, none of these perks were purchased. However, some of our sponsors have purchased
being mentioned in a thank you video we made and all of them received a lovely
postcard signed by all of us.
2. Weekly newsletter
We sent a weekly update of our project to every person who donated to our campaign.
In this newsletter we also shared some fun facts on biology, biotechnology and
genetic modification. This resource was used as a means of keeping in touch with our
backers as well as sharing knowledge with different people that come from different
We also learnt about the importance of promoting a project in a more personal way when
looking for funds. Since we could see that a good amount of our backers were coming from
personal communication (Direct).
Micropia is the first microbe museum in the world with an extensive collection and real-live installations. Here people can learn about different microbes and their importance in today's society. It is a ‘zoo’ of microorganisms, an ideal place for our team to educate people about the use of microbes in biotechnology! Together with Micropia, we set up experiments which are showing the (especially younger) public about how bacteria can be used in biotech.
By setting up sensory experiments we could include the audience in an active way. We aimed to
give a hands on explanation about cell factories and especially about cyanobacterial cell
Related to the week of sustainability we gave our workshops every day from 1 until 3 PM in
the Dutch autumn holiday (October 11th-25th), with an estimated 20 visitors per day.
Safety was considered an important issue (particularly given the COVID-19 situation): besides
keeping distance and wearing a face shield, the number of people which were allowed in the
museum was limited. For the people who weren’t able to come, we made a video in which we
explained the concept of cell factories. This was an unique collaboration between the
Amsterdam Universities working on science and a museum who wants to tell the public about
In our workshop we wanted to tell the story of developing cyanobacterial cell factories. But
before explaining about this special type of bacteria, the participants themselves had to
figure out what cyanobacteria need to be happy using a “happy” and “unhappy” Synechocystis
culture. Next, we introduced the concept of producing compounds with cyanobacteria.
Participants had to decide which product was made based on the smell of three cyanobacterial
cultures. To conclude participants could isolate acetylsalicylic acid themselves to show how
we can prove that our cells truly are cell factories. More detailed protocols and background
information for the participants can be found in our English
More information can be found on the Micropia page (English and Dutch)
Ethical Engagement at CRISPRcon 2020
CRISPRcon is an annual conference that facilitates cross-disciplinary discussion on all
things genetic engineering. They host panels with legislators, business people, researchers,
ethicists, hereditary disease patients, and more.
This year’s conference was virtual due to COVID-19, which enabled our team to host a
discussion session from our homes in Amsterdam! The conference followed a simple format:
after each speaker. panel, there was an “Ideas Marketplace” breakout session to explore
various attendee-chosen topics.
Our team hosted the discussion “The Ethical Implications of Creating Anything in Anything” on
October 15th, to broadly discuss the ethics behind Forbidden FRUITS and its potential to
produce any compound in any microbe in a growth-coupled manner. We aimed to explore what
people from diverse backgrounds generally thought of the idea, how it might be regulated, as
well as any concerns people might have regarding the algorithm and concept.
Some key takeaways from out breakout discussion were:
- We should consider putting metrics to benefits besides “profit” and “yield”.
Environmental and social impacts should also be considered.
- We must share the onus of ethical reflection among all groups involved with genetic
engineering technologies. This responsibility should not merely fall on ethicists, but
scientists, executives, and regulators must also continually reflect on the ethical
implications of their decisions.
- It is crucial that we engage in dialogue with people from different disciplines. This
helps us avoid tunnel vision, aids in problem-solving, and allows us to consider the
interest of different parties and populations.
Mallinson, L., Russell, J., Cameron, D. D., Ton, J., Horton, P., & Barker, M. E. (2018). Why rational argument fails the genetic modification (GM) debate. Food Security, 10(5), 1145–1161.
Hanssen, L., Dijkstra, A. M., Sleenhoff, S., Frewer, L. J., & Gutteling, J. M. (2018). Revisiting public debate on Genetic Modification and Genetically Modified Organisms. Explanations for contemporary Dutch public attitudes. Journal of Science Communication, 17(4), 1–20.