The survey was set up to gauge the current opinion of the general public on the application of GMOs outside of the laboratory to tackle real world problems. The potential dangers, benefits and biocontainment strategies of GMOs are discussed. It is important for scientists to learn from the concerns of the public to ensure the right precautions are taken. Additionally, knowing which groups of people are specifically fearful of GMOs is useful to directly target educational strategies towards them to potentially ease some of their fears.

Survey: Public opinion on the release of genetically modified organisms into the world

Synthetic biology is on a long path towards a future where genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be used safely outside of the laboratory. The use of GMOs outside of the laboratory could have an impact on the general public, thus scientists need to ensure the public understands what is happening. To this end, scientists should both educate the public on the new innovations in the field, but scientists should also learn from the concerns of the public. These concerns should be addressed by the scientists in their further development of the innovations to ensure they take responsible actions. To gauge current public opinion on the potential dangers, benefits and biocontainment strategies of GMOs, we have set up a GMO survey together with the team Manipal Biomachines (MIT_MAHE) from India.

The aim of the survey is to understand the current opinion and understanding of the general public on GMOs. Additionally, it is aimed to understand how to best reach the public with educational materials to increase their understanding regarding the topic. The responders were stratified into sex, age, residence, general education level, field of study and previous knowledge about biocontainment. Using this stratification, we hope to gain improved understanding of which groups of people are fearful of the use of GMOs or might require additional education or discussion on the topic. Specific educational strategies could then be developed to ensure those groups are reached with a campaign directly targeted at them.

To ensure we gained valuable information from the data of the survey, the questions were designed carefully and discussed with multiple different people. Kyra Delsing, who is a researcher in Biotechnology at the Rathenau Instituut, advised us on how to set up the survey well. Specific details on her input can be found on the Human practices page. With her feedback in mind we redesigned the questions, whereafter they were discussed with the supervisors of both iGEM Leiden and MIT_MAHE. Lastly, professor Han de Winde has helped to rewrite last points, as he has experience with surveys on the subject of GMOs.

Data from the survey is analyzed for statistical differences with T tests. For each stratification of a specific factor, it was made sure other factors were evenly distributed between the groups before any analysis was done. The specific questions and anonymized raw data of the survey can be found here:

Raw data file of the survey

Demographic participants

The survey was distributed by both the iGEM Leiden and iGEM MIT_MAHE team, which provided us with 107 responders. The responders were diverse, with diversity in sex, age, nationality, education level and field of education.

Click on the images to zoom in

Figure 1: Distribution of sex within the cohort of respondents

Figure 2: Distribution of age within specific categories of all respondents

Figure 3: Distribution of nationality of the cohort of respondents

Figure 4: Distribution of the highest completed education level of the cohort of respondents.

Figure 5: Distribution of respondents with a specific education in a biology-related field

Figure 6: Distribution of respondents who are pre-information about the subject of biosafety and biocontainment of GMOs

Figures 1-6: Specific details on the sex, age, country of residence, educational level, Biology-related education level and knowledge on biosafety and biocontainment of GMOs.

The cohort of respondents represents people of different sex and multiple different countries of residence, primarily within Europe and Asia. Mainly younger people (age 18-24) have let us know their opinion on GMOs and most (58.9%) have completed a high educational level. Around 53% of respondents do not specifically study anything biology related, while only 22.4% have not heard of the biosafety and biocontainment of GMOs before. The respondents are thus mostly pre-informed on the subject.


We have noticed that male respondents generally seem slightly less hesitant towards the use of GMOs than females, as their answers are overall more on the lenient side (not significant). More specifically, they are less likely to regard GMOs as dangerous on the basis of ethical concerns surrounding genetic modification of living organisms, which was a significant difference with females (p < 0.0001). Moreover, females tend to indicate more often to be unsure whether a biocontainment system would make the release of GMOs outside of the laboratory safe or not. From this we conclude that they might want more information on the subject before they form an opinion. No clear differences were observed in the sources on GMOs that are indicated to be trustworthy by males and females.


Since we had a large number of 18-24 year old participants (n=77), we were only able to accurately compare that age group with the remaining respondents (25-75 or above, n=30). Even though many answers do not statistically differ, there is a trend in both the open answers and the closed questions that 18-24 year old participants care more about the dangers GMOs pose to animal and human health than older participants (above 25) (p=0.0444). Additionally, the younger participants are statistically more likely to regard GMOs as dangerous on the grounds of ethical concerns surrounding genetically modifying organisms (p=0.0093). Overall in our survey, younger participants seem to be slightly more cautious towards GMOs than older participants on average (not significant).

The craving for information on biosafety and biocontainment seems similar between the age levels. The younger age category, however, deems more sources as trustworthy than the older participants. Respondents could, namely, select from a list which sources they deemed trustworthy, the options included television, newspapers, books, scientific literature, the government, family and friends and social media. Each older participant determines 1.5 of these sources as trustworthy on average, while an 18-24 year old participant determines 2.1 as trustworthy. Within the indicated trustworthy sources, there are also some differences; only younger participants have indicated social media as a trustworthy source.


A division was also made on participants from Europe (N=61) and Asia (N=43), which allows us to investigate whether there might be a difference in opinion on GMOs between residents of these continents. On average, Asian participants were more likely to regard GMOs as dangerous on the grounds of them being unnatural (p=0.0185), the potential they are misused (p=0.0066) and ethical concerns surrounding genetic modification of living organisms (p=0.0009). Nevertheless, European participants were more likely to answer to be unsure about biocontainment strategies, from which we conclude that they might like to receive more information to form an opinion. Most Asian participants, however, state that biocontainment systems would make GMOs safe in their opinion. No clear differences were observed in the sources on GMOs that are indicated to be trustworthy by participants from Europe and Asia.

Education level

Overall, participants with a trade school/vocational school/university of applied science diploma are significantly more afraid of GMOs than those with a University Masters diploma (p=0.0474). Of these participants with a Master diploma, 61.5% are not trained in a Biology field. Thus there seems to be a correlation between the likelihood of a participant answering that GMOs are deemed dangerous and their overall education level. Practically educated students more often rate the usage of GMOs as dangerous overall. However, this does not hold true for deeming GMOs dangerous on the grounds of the techniques being too new, ethical concerns and religious beliefs. Specifically, they indicate that in their opinion the regulations should stay strict. Additionally, they deem GMOs more dangerous than University graduates on the grounds of GMOs being unnatural, too powerful and potentially harming natural ecosystems or animal and human health.

Furthermore, these practically trained participants indicate more than all other participants to regard GMOs as dangerous because they are unfamiliar with them (average is 1.0 point higher, but not a significant difference). This suggests that more accessible information about GMOs, their potential benefits and safety aspects could potentially ease their concerns. However, they trust scientists less than all other participants (average is 1.0 point higher, but not a significant difference). Interestingly, even though practically trained participants indicate to use social media for their knowledge on GMOs, they do not regard it as a trustworthy source.

Overall, participants who indicate to currently follow or have finished a biology related study are statistically less fearful of GMOs than those who have not (p=0.00011). They score their fears lower on all proposed aspects of GMOs in our survey. Similarly, participants who indicate having heard about biosafety and biocontainment of GMOs before are statistically overall less fearful of GMOs (p=0.0392). Suggesting further knowledge on biology and GMOs can ease concerns surrounding their application.


18-24 years old respondents, participants living in Asia, practically trained respondents and participants without biology-related knowledge of our survey are on average more fearful of GMOs. Possibly, more accessible and trustworthy information on the safety aspects of GMOs and biocontainment systems could ease these concerns. Younger people deem social media as a trustworthy source, which should be utilized to educate this group specifically. Perhaps, short social media posts with links to more detailed scientifically correct information could be a way to reach them in an accessible and trustworthy manner.

Scientific papers, even though indicated to be trustworthy by most participants (92%), are generally not accessible or understandable to the general public. Scientists should invest time to write clear science communication for other sources that are also deemed trustworthy by the general public, which include books (44%), newspapers (32%), television (11%) and social media (9%). Additionally, scientists could work together with the government to spread correct information about GMOs, which is indicated as trustworthy by 28%.

The results in our survey suggest that further education on GMOs can ease concerns surrounding the application of GMOs. Firstly, having knowledge of a biology related study or previously having heard of biosafety and biocontainment of GMOs eases fears surrounding the application of GMOs according to our survey results. Additionally, our small introductions on biosafety, biocontainment and DOPL LOCK already gave participants enough information in an accessible way to indicate that they see a possibility of applying GMOs outside of the laboratory with a sound biocontainment system (89.5%). Specifically, 74.8% of the participants indicate that they are more inclined to support the application of GMOs with DOPL LOCK. When presented with a real scenario with actual benefits of the GMO application, this support is even higher; the application of DOPL LOCK on Celtinel, the project of the MIT_MAHE iGEM team, is even supported by 91.8% of participants. This proves the need for more engagement with the general public to ease concerns regarding the use of GMOs and better communication between scientists and the public to build a foundation of trust.