Perspectives for the communication of Synthetic Biology


The Project evaluates what and how we can learn from past controversies for a productive exchange about Synthetic Biology

Communicating Synthetic Biology (SB) to the public poses some challenge. Many fear that an unfavourable controversy, similar to that over agricultural biotechnology, is imminent. Right now, different people draw different analogies: Some link Synthetic Biology to genetic engineering, others to nanotechnology and, in particular, computer sciences. Depending on the frame of reference, SB appears in a different light.

Different analogies

Commissioned by the German Academy of Science and Engineering (ACATECH), and in collaboration with biofaction KG, Vienna, the ITA investigated existing approaches of communicating SB. Following a short description of the technology and its aims we highlighted the references to the above technologies, respectively, regarding content and the ways of communicating.

It appeared that different actors prefer different references: The handful of involved NGOs and other non-expert groups drew analogies to genetic engineering. Some politicians and social scientists doing ELSI studies explicitly or implicitly drew analogies to nanotechnology, while researchers from the natural sciences emphasised the link to computer sciences.


As a result we can say that non-scientists try to understand new technologies, like in our case Synthetic Biology, by using metaphors and drawing comparisons. They argue that Synthetic Biology is “like” genetic engineering, or “like” nanotechnology, or “like” computer science, depending on what aspects they want to put into the foreground.

In a negative context SB is being compared to genetic engineering. To underline its advantages, Computer Science is the preferred frame of reference. Which of these analogies will prove to be the most important reference in the future is a matter of speculation.

Communication about synthetic biology differs from group to group
09/2010 - 11/2011