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Survey on the communication about genetic modification in biotechnology

Introduction and motivation

Public perception of GMOs plays an important role in the development of biotechnology. In some branches of biotechnology genetic modification is not allowed and thus our algorithm cannot be applied. We wanted to find out in which branch of biotech genetic modification is most accepted. With this knowledge, we could target these branches, so that our algorithm can be applied in a way which is accepted by most people. Many previous iGEM teams and other researchers have paved the way when it comes to the opinion people have about genetic modification. Last year, the Maastricht iGEM team showed with their survey that education about GMOs is important for the acceptance of genetic modification. Communication about these new technologies might change the opinion of the general public towards genetic modification in biotechnology. However, some studies suggest that rational arguments might not be the only factor, but that culture and worldview also are important when it comes to determining the opinion of people about GMOs (Mallison, et al. 2018, Hansen, et al. 2018). That’s why we wanted to explore ways to communicate with the general public about genetic modification for biotechnology. We used an A/B survey, which tries to discover whether the term ‘Genetic Modification’ already influences the answers people give. As a secondary aim, we wanted to see if the opinion about the use of GMOs is different for different industries.

Objective and hypothesis

Hypothesis 1: The term ‘genetic modification’ influences the opinion of people about the use of genetic modified organisms to make everyday products.
Method 1: Sending out two versions of the final survey: (A) with the term ‘genetic modification’ (Dutch: ‘genetische modificatie’), (B) with the term ‘directed design’ (Dutch: ‘organismen door ontwerp’).

Hypothesis 2: Giving motivation about why genetic modification is used in the production of a product increases acceptance on the use of genetic modification to make these products.
Method 2: Ask questions about the acceptance of the same product in different manners:

  • General acceptance (‘Using genetic modification/directed design to..’)
  • Personal purchase (‘I would buy … made using genetic modification/directed design’)
  • General acceptance + motivation
  • Personal purchase + motivation

Hypothesis 3: People have different opinions about the use of genetic modification in the different branches of biotechnology.
Method 3: Ask similar questions about the use of genetic modification to make every day products for the following branches of biotechnology:

  • Biochemicals
  • Biofuels
  • Medicine
  • Cosmetics and cleaning agents
  • Food

Survey methods and ethics

Promotion: To get a representative sample of students in Amsterdam we distributed posters with information about the survey on different campus buildings of the University of Amsterdam and Amsterdam University College. Besides we used social media (Facebook, instagram, LinkedIn) and messaging apps (Whatsapp, Messenger). We offered five rewards of 20 euros to motivate the participants.
Language: The survey was available in Dutch and English.
Duration: The survey was open for three weeks from September 28th - October 19th. The survey took 5 minutes to complete.
Platform: Qualtrics was used to build the survey and to obtain the results. Qualtrics distributed the A and B variants of the survey in a random manner. The raw data was analysed in R.
Ethics: the survey was composed according to all ethic and privacy regulations of iGEM and the Netherlands. The survey was approved by the BEthic (Ethics Committee of Beta faculties, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam). Every participant gave their informed consent. Furthermore we made a data management plan to handle private information.

Click here for the survey


In total 202 completely filled in the survey between September 28th and October 19th, of which 146 were students at an educational institution in Amsterdam. Most of the participants were university students. The age and gender distribution of participants of the A and B survey was similar. The A survey was filled in by a slightly more international public. Table 1 gives an overview of the demographics of the participants.

Table 1. Overview of demographics of all participants. All participants were students at an educational institution in Amsterdam.
Genetic modification Directed design Total
Nuimber of participants 76 70 146
Female 55.3% 54.3% 54.8%
Male 40.8% 45.7% 43.2%
Other 3.9% 0% 2.1%
Dutch nationality 32.9% 41.4% 37%
18-24 77.6% 85.7% 81.5%
25-34 18.4% 12.9% 15.8%
>34 3.9% 1.4% 2.8%
Education level
College (HBO) 1.3% 8.5% 4.1%
Bachelor 46.1% 55.7% 50.7%
Master 23.7% 35.7% 29.5%
Other 28.9% 7.1% 15.1%

Results and discussion

Influence of the term genetic modification

To study the effect of the term genetic modification, we studied the difference in response frequency between the survey with the term ‘genetic modification’ (A) and the term ‘directed design’ (B). Although there was not a significant difference between the two groups, we did see a trend towards a more positive response to the survey where the term ‘genetic modification’ was used (see Figure 1). Perhaps, the participants in the survey were already more familiar with the term ‘genetic modification’ than with the term ‘directed design’. However, this could be an artefact of the small number of subjects or of the fact that the A survey was filled in by a more international public.

Figure 1. Distribution of all answers given for different survey versions. The blue bar represents answers to the survey using the term ‘genetic modification’, the yellow bar represents answers to the survey using the term ‘directed design’.
Influence of giving information

Besides the influence of the term genetic modification, our survey asked similar questions in a slightly different way. The participants were asked about their general acceptance of producing a product with the use of genetic modification/directed design and if they would purchase the product both with and without mentioning a specific benefit of using genetic modification/directed design. When giving motivation for using genetic modification, the participants gave more positive replies (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Overview of distribution of all answers given to different ways of representing a similar statement. In each section the statements were formulated differently or motivation about using genetic modification was given. Upper right: general acceptance, upper left: personal purchase, lower right: general acceptance and motivation, lower left: personal purchase and motivation.
Biotechnology branches

Lastly, the difference in acceptance between the different branches of biotechnology was studied by applying the question formats mentioned previously to products coming from different branches of biotechnology (biochemicals, biofuels, medicine, cleaning cosmetics, agents and food). In general, the acceptance of biochemicals, biofuels, medicine and cleaning agents is higher than foods and cosmetics (see Figure 3). The participants were less accepting towards the use of genetic modification to make products directly applied to the human body. Based on our experience from our webinars (see our Education and Engagement page) we hypothesize that people are still afraid for the effects genetic modification can have on the products which they consume, although more in depth study about the motivation is essential

Figure 3. Overview of distribution of all answers given to all statements about the same branch in biotechnology. Upper left: biochemicals, upper middle: biofuels, upper right: medicine, lower left: cleaning agents, lower middle: cosmetics, lower right: food.


  • The term ‘genetic modification’ might result in a more positive attitude towards acceptance and personal purchase of products made using genetic modifications. However, more study is essential to draw conclusions.
  • Giving motivation about why genetic modification is used improves acceptance and willingness to purchase the product
  • Acceptance of the use of genetic modification in the production of biochemicals, biofuels, medicine and cleaning agents is higher than foods and cosmetics.

Key takeaways for future iGEM teams

  • We encourage future iGEM teams to repeat our survey in a cohort more representative of the general public
  • Future iGEM teams should consider giving a short motivation to why genetic modification is used in their project when communicating to the general public.
  • We encourage future iGEM teams to organize interviews, discussion sessions and focus groups to explore the difference in the acceptance genetic modification between the different branches of biotechnology

Raw data and Individual graphs of the results upon requests


[1]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

[2]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.

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