Synthetic Biology: media portrayal and public understanding

Synthetic biology is a rapidly evolving field that has the potential to change how we live and understand the world. A trend in current technology assessment is the idea that it should include public involvement. This seems particularly true in the case of synthetic biology, given its relatively low language codification and potential to affect public interest.

There is, however, a risk that scientists spin their results in order to further the field. This, coupled with ethicists focussing on speculative ethics and media focussing on drama, can put the public and policy makers at a disadvantage: Reducing their ability to properly assess synthetic biology and its possible applications. Therefore, the way the public is addressed and the way that synthetic biology is presented and perceived are key factors.


This project focuses on synthetic biology outreach and the way it is popularized by scientists. The aim is:

  • To suggest conceptual tools for a sober and grounded understanding of synthetic biology
  • To suggest tools for communicating synthetic biology to the public in a way that relates to common moral intuitions about life.

Time table

  • 2014 – 2015


Mirko Ancillotti, MA

Stefan Eriksson, Associate Professor of Research Ethics


  • An Update of Public Perceptions of Synthetic Biology: Still Undecided?

    Ancillotti, Mirko; Rerimassie, Virgil; Seitz, Stefanie B.; Steurer, Walburg

    Part of NanoEthics, p. 309-325, 2016.

    Article in journal


    The discourse on the fundamental issues raised by synthetic biology, such as biosafety and biosecurity, intellectual property, environmental consequences and ethical and societal implications, is still open and controversial. This, coupled with the potential and risks the field holds, makes it one of the hottest topics in technology assessment today. How a new (bio)technology is perceived by the public influences the manner in which its products and applications will be received. Therefore, it is important to learn how people perceive synthetic biology. This work gathers, integrates and discusses the results of three studies of public perceptions of synthetic biology: (1) an analysis of existing research on how media portray synthetic biology across 13 European countries and in the USA, (2) the Meeting of Young Minds, a public debate between prospective politicians and synthetic biologists in the Netherlands and (3) the experiences of citizen panels and focus groups in Austria, the UK and the USA. The results show that the media are generally positive in their reports on synthetic biology, rather unbalanced in their view of potential benefits (emphasized) and risks (downplayed), and also heavily influenced by the sources of the stories, namely scientists and stakeholders. Among the prospective Dutch politicians, there were positive expectations as well as very negative ones. Some of these positions are also shared by participants in public dialogue experiments, such as not only the demand for information, transparency and regulation but also a sense of resignation and ineluctability of scientific and technological progress.

  • Synthetic Biology in the Press: Media Portrayal in Sweden and Italy

    Ancillotti, Mirko; Eriksson, Stefan

    Part of Ambivalences of Creating Life. , p. 141-156, 2016.

    Chapter in book


    Synthetic biology is a rapidly evolving field which potentially can change how we live in and understand the world. Given its potential impact it is important to inform and involve the public so that it gains a proper understanding of synthetic biology and is in a position to assess its future applications and implications. This study investigates through qualitative content analysis the synthetic biology press coverage in Sweden and Italy between 2009 and 2013. The three major newspapers of each country were considered a good example of what was offered to the public in a period which witnessed important scientific advancements of the field and consequent media resonance. The framing of the articles was analyzed in the light of the idea that mass media not only inform the public but also contribute to the shaping of ideas. Language was analysed and found to be generally adequate. The topics were presented in an overall positive and optimistic tone, which was reflected also in the benefits and risks envisioned. The two countries can be considered rather different in many social and cultural respects, yet besides a few differences (mainly quantitative), striking similarities were found, probably related to a marked dependence on the common sources of the articles and the lack of critical scrutiny on the behalf of the media.

  • Uncritical and unbalanced coverage of synthetic biology in the Nordic press

    Ancillotti, Mirko; Holmberg, Niklas; Lindfelt, Mikael; Eriksson, Stefan

    Part of Public Understanding of Science, p. 235-250, 2017.

    Article in journal


    Synthetic biology will probably have a high impact on a variety of fields, such as healthcare, environment, biofuels, agriculture, and so on. A driving theme in European research policy is the importance of maintaining public legitimacy and support. Media can influence public attitudes and are therefore an important object of study. Through qualitative content analysis, this study investigates the press coverage of synthetic biology in the major Nordic countries between 2009 and 2014. The press coverage was found to be event-driven and there were striking similarities between countries when it comes to framing, language use, and treated themes. Reporters showed a marked dependence on their sources, mainly scientists and stakeholders, who thus drives the media agenda. The media portrayal was very positive, with an optimistic look at future benefits and very little discussion of possible risks.

    Open access