Team:UNSW Australia/Human Practices


Understanding the Issue

Coral bleaching is a worldwide issue affecting the health of our coral reefs. This bleaching phenomenon has accelerated as a result of climate change increasing ocean temperatures.

Our team is based in Australia, the home of the world’s largest coral reef system, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). The GBR is known as a natural wonder, the traditional home of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for over 60,000 years and a beloved tourist site. Sir David Attenborough has declared our Great Barrier Reef to be “one of the greatest and most splendid natural treasures that the world possesses.” Having visited the GBR firsthand on a diving trip this year, I can personally testify to the sheer beauty and significant value of the reef described by Attenborough. The GBR is a core part of Australia’s cultural DNA and crucial to the identity of Australia’s Traditional Owners (Deloitte Access Economics, 2017).

However, recent mass bleaching events have accelerated the decline of the GBR. In 2020, 60% of the reefs aerially surveyed by scientists had either moderate or severe bleaching (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, 2020). Climate change presents the single greatest challenge to the survival of the GBR for future generations (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, 2020).

Who will be impacted?

Designing our Integrated Human Practices Framework

We desired to incorporate the attitudes and values of as many affected stakeholders, in order to build a meaningful user-centric solution. We chose to use a lean, human-centred design framework for developing our sustainable, synthetic biology solution. Human-centred design revolves around building deep empathy and addressing the core needs of those experiencing the issue of coral bleaching (Institute of Design at Stanford, 2021).

Ultimately, this framework helped us to be mindful of diverse perspectives as we created a project that was well-considered, responsible and good for the world.

Our Human-Centred Approach

Our IHP framework followed the Double Diamond design process, created by the UK Design Council. It uses a simple schematic to describe the steps taken in an innovative project. This design approach is a universally accepted and widely adopted design tool (Ball, 2021). As such, it follows a simple and easy format, which made it an ideal fit for our solution. We have provided a short overview of the design thinking process below and how it formed the basis of the development of our synthetic biology solution.

There are 5 key stages:

  1. Discover: To deeply understand the underlying issues that are contributing to coral bleaching. Our key goal was to emphasise and place ourselves in the shoes of those affected by coral bleaching. We discovered coral bleaching to be a global problem and as such, sought to understand the environmental issue from both a local lens and a broader international perspective. In our search to understand, we created a survey for the public to enhance our knowledge of societal opinions towards coral bleaching and our proposed synthetic biology solution. We conducted in-depth interviews and email exchanges with a diverse range of expert stakeholder groups: Academics, Traditional Custodians, Government Bodies and Businesses. These consultations used a mixture of structured and unstructured questions, allowing us to connect with stakeholders and emphasise their needs.

  2. Define: To focus on the key takeaways from each of the conversations and carefully analyse the input we received from stakeholders. This stage helped us understand and prioritise stakeholders needs. We were able to decide on which advice to incorporate in and shape our solution. This decision-making process was facilitated by discussions with the lab and science communication teams to ensure we all had visibility of the insights from stakeholders, in order to decide how each team could best integrate these values into our overall project.

  3. Develop: This phase focuses on developing and testing the solution. Literature reviews are undertaken to understand current progress with developing a genetically engineered algae species. The wet and dry lab teams begin searching for a viable solution and a feasible way to develop heat-tolerant algae in the lab. Our human practices team focused on consulting academics in the research area to discuss their feedback on our scientific progress and ways to technically improve our project. We were also mindful to research the ethics and morality surrounding synthetic biology to guide the development of a feasible and socially responsible solution.

  4. Deliver: We created a prototype of our solution based on the experimentation of the wet and dry lab teams. This prototype was tested using scientific modelling to check if the genetically engineered algae could withstand higher ocean temperatures. Further, testing is conducted with the wider public to understand if our solution meets their needs. In this stage, we are assessing if our prototype will deliver the greatest benefit to stakeholders and society. Importantly, our human practices team was engaging with stakeholders on an ongoing basis, enabling us to quickly iterate the prototype to reflect their feedback and ensure it was meaningful.

  5. Evolve: This involves selecting our final solution and preparing it for launch. We consider the proposed implementation side of human practices, seeking out stakeholders that are knowledgeable in the commercialisation of synthetic biology. Beyond assessing ways for our solution to enter the market, we consider the perceived risks of our solution and ways to mitigate these risks, in order to gain public acceptance. Continuous improvement based on stakeholder feedback is imperative in the evolving phase. Thus, we created a next steps section to delve deeper into how we can implement our project in the future.

Integrated Human Practices


Our Values

During the first leg of our journey, our understanding was strictly limited to the amalgamation of figures and facts that we had gathered from our initial reconnaissance on coral bleaching and its environmental and socio-economic impacts. To further delve past this face-level comprehension, we approached the Phase I Human Practices team to ask them about their process and how they managed to navigate and balance the complexities of this multifaceted issue.

This meeting had been incredibly insightful and was monumental in shaping the direction of the beginning stages of our project. Following from the conversation, we saw value in maintaining a human-centered approach which rested its shoulders on the pillars of being reflective, responsive and responsible - the three facets that the competition emphasises on, all of which lending themselves to a compelling case that stresses the importance of why our project is feasible and counteract the coral bleaching phenomenon.

In response to the first aspect, “Reflective”, we decided to give thought to the values we wanted to prioritise, especially in the context of what is required in a feasible solution for the revival of the Great Barrier Reef. In doing so, we formulated the following values based on our initial research into this issue:

  • Creating an adaptive solution that protects the coral reefs from climate change.
  • Being inclusive of those impacted by coral bleaching and the implementation of our solution.
  • Can be easily integrated into the natural environment, and causes minimal to no impact on its surrounding ecosystem.
  • An alternative that is financially-conservative and can be replicated on a larger scale.

These values constituted the foundation on which we would build our reasoning that our solution is responsible and good for the world. However, upon further self-reflection, the team had come to the realisation that these values were driven by our self-interest and had not been verified to be . Thus, the logical next step was to be “Responsive” and consult social scientists and our relevant stakeholders, who have been affected by this issue first-hand, or have a wealth of knowledge regarding this topic.

Delving into Social Sciences

In any scientific research conducted, social sciences is akin to being the North Star of the project - it informs scientists regarding the impact of their research on the wider population, either on a social, political, geographical or economic scale.

Although the primary reason of us broaching our solution of coral bleaching to social scientists was to verify the need for our product in this current climate and listen to their opinions on the use of synthetic biology, more questions cropped up as we were developing our five-step framework:

How do we best integrate the perspective of the public into our project? Do we use different frameworks whilst engaging with different stakeholder categories? How do we do right by communities that are severely underrepresented in the Scientific realm?

Our conversation with A/Professor Daniel Robinson aided in indirectly answering these questions and helped us develop the structure that we followed whilst engaging with our stakeholders, further down the line.

Associate Professor Daniel Robinson

Part of the Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture at The University of New South Wales, A/Prof Daniel Robinson’s research explores the sustainable use and of biodiversity by researchers and/or companies, and has a special interest in analysing the involvement of Indigenous communities during these processes. The main thrust of A/Prof Robinson’s work is at The Nagoya Protocol of Access and Benefit Sharing to the Convention of Biological Diversity, whose main focus involves the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources (Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, 2021).

In retrospect, the conversation with A/Prof Robinson regarding the use of an genetically engineered organism issued a rounded approach, as he managed to cover the pros and cons of both sides of the coin. With IPCC projecting a decrease of 45% in carbon emissions to maintain the world’s average temperature under 1.5 degrees celsius by 2030, it seems unlikely for us to achieve this feat as it is unlikely for us to undo centuries’ worth of harm in the span of less than a decade. Thus, it was important for us to create a solution that is adaptive to these rising changes rather than alleviate climate change in itself (McFall-Johnsen, 2019). A/Prof Robinson echoed these sentiments and talked about an increased investment observed in “ecological renovation” techniques such as genetic intervention. Findings have shown that this type of conservation action is ranked 16th out of 23 intervention types in terms of the number of studies conducted, which shows us the scope of this untapped source (Prober et al., 2019).

During this conversation, A/Prof Robinson also touched upon the fear of the unknown that drives public discourse about synthetic biology. This feeling of fear stems from two different places - culturally and ethically. Those with deep, cultural roots are afraid of the introduction of genetic engineering due to their core belief systems, whereas ethical concerns are born out of the uncertainty of genetic engineering and its usage. To tackle this fear at the root of the problem, A/Prof Robinson’s advice was to always assume that the public is genuinely interested to know more about the project and to provide more details in a manner that is easily understood by most. Knowing that this fear also varies across the board of stakeholders we were engaging with, we thought it would be best to explicitly ask our stakeholders regarding their opinions on synthetic biology, as it would allow for us to address any of these negative consequences later into our Integrated Human Practices journey and hopefully, proselytise these pre-existing notions of those with the same worries.

In regards to using different frameworks whilst engaging with our stakeholders, he suggested to be open to input of all stakeholders and to tackle the dilemma of prioritising certain values by perhaps using a Consequentialist framework, which asks stakeholders what outcomes are desirable in a given situation, and consider ethical conduct to be whatever will achieve the best consequences (Bonde and Firenze, 2013). Whilst engaging with members of the Indigenous community, he advised us to adhere and implement the following general principles, which shaped our future conversations:

  • Acknowledge the different kinship relations, customs and connections, and respect their totemic relationship with nature.
  • Refer to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, to read through modules that specifically details how to respectfully engage with these communities.

The questions that we had leaving said discussion was a hint at continuing this conversation with those who are directly affected by this issue, and the advice dispatched by A/Prof Robinson was influential and contributed to shaping the conversations we had with our line-up of stakeholders. Prior to this, however, we wanted to perform a deep dive into synthetic biology, current alternatives available and why the option of genetic engineering is a better suited option in these circumstances. Not only would this enhance our understanding of our own solution, but we would be able to better convey the reason for our choice to our stakeholders.

Synthetic Biology as a Solution

Through the Looking Glass of Synthetic Biology

The transdisciplinary field of synthetic biology has been on the up and up, and has seen increased traction in the last two decades and is forecasted to be a $27 billion industry in Australia alone (Brookes, 2021). The application of this technique is one out of many that have been explored in the context of ecological restoration of our coral reefs.

Figure 1: Typography of options presented on axes that are divided by their ability to facilitate persistence or adaptation of biodiversity and ecosystems in a changing climate. Figure adapted from (Prober et al., 2019).

In a review paper released in 2019 by Prober et. al, the researchers had sieved through 473 papers to identify 23 intervention techniques that are currently being used. This information was then plotted on a graph that was arranged according to the dominant ecological mechanisms on one axis, “ameliorate changing conditions” or “build adaptive capacity”, and the tools used to manipulate these mechanisms on the other, “low regrets” or “climate targeted”. This graph is visualised in Figure 1, and we see that our solution matches solution 5D, which promotes in situ genetic adaptations using genetic interventions (Prober et al., 2019).

The ratios of published papers according to each of these intervention options were analysed, and it was noted that there was a large discrepancy between low-regret options that are focused on building adaptive capacity and climate-targeted approaches. With our hurtling ascent towards climate change, Prober has suggested that we shift the paradigm to a climate-targeted approach instead. A table synthesised by Prober had also delved into the options ability to support climate-adapted nature conservation, and 5D was shown to fairly support optimising ecological functions, strongly support the ability to maintain evolutionary potential and strongly supports the minimisation of native species lost (Prober et al., 2019).

This study provided strong evidence that pursuing this adaptation technique would be beneficial and reaffirmed that this would be a feasible and responsible solution to this issue. With this reassurance, we decided to engage with our stakeholders to listen to their feedback regarding the use of this alternative over existing ones.



From the conception of our idea, we knew that it simply wouldn’t be enough to put our idea out in the social landscape without considering the perspectives of our stakeholders. Although Phase I of PROTECC Coral provided us with a concise, foundational understanding of the main stakeholders affected by this issue, the Phase II team workshopped these subgroups to incorporate those who didn’t quite fit into the Traditional Owners, Biodiversity, Bioprospecting, Coastal Protection, and Tourism & Commercial and Recreational Fishing domain.

In the hopes to be more inclusive, we developed our novel stakeholder subgroups - Academics, Traditional Owners, Businesses and Government Bodies. One of the main reasons we developed a human-centered approach was due to these consortia of voices who have been deeply impacted by the events at the Great Barrier Reef, and would be affected by our solution, as well.

To view more information regarding why we chose these specific stakeholder groups, their perspectives on the coral bleaching, what they thought would be an appropriate solution to this issue, and their guidance on the project design, click on the tabs located to the right of the “Overview” tab.

The information under each tab summarises the information from each of these sections, and expands on how we were informed by our stakeholders’ advice and how it helped shape our project at different stages.

A/Prof. Brendan Burns

Prof. Marc Wilkins

Prof. Lars Nielsen

A/Prof. Wallace Bridge

Prof. Ian Dawes

David Burt

The application of a broad range of sciences is an integral part of any solution that discusses the implication of synthetic biology on the environment. Given the breadth of knowledge within science, consultations with experts from each field is a given for the generation of a working solution. By actively considering the perspectives and experiences of academics, our team could produce a theoretically well-informed solution that addresses the larger issues of coral bleaching.

Since the role of devising and testing our solution is shared amongst the wet and dry lab groups, we’ve had to consult with a greater diversity of scientific experts. The wet lab team was focused on designing experiments that would test the efficacy of heat shock protein expression in E.coli and the generation of a plasmid that could introduce the glutathione system to a host. Preliminary testing conducted with the heat shock protein returned results that were not in line with the team’s expectation. They discussed these results during consultations with their mentors Joshua McCluskey and Gustave Severin, who provided key insights into the experimental design. These two also provided their opinions in the design of the glutathione plasmid, along with Ian Dawes and Wallace Bridge who prompted a necessity to focus on substrates within the cellular system that could affect glutathione regulation

The importance of consulting with academic stakeholders was only further emphasised for the dry lab team due to the complexity of structural and mathematical modelling. Our initial stages for modelling produced rough results as we began looking into different modelling softwares. The depth of knowledge required for each simulation and the subsequent deciphering of our models became a tall task for our members. For this, Professors Marc Wilkins and Lars Nielsen assisted our team throughout the year in understanding these results whilst informing us of other considerations. Other notable academic stakeholders were Professors Brendan Burns, Wallace Bridge, and Ian Dawes who helped reinforce the theoretical underpinnings of our model and helped redefine the end objective of our project by proposing considerations for future modelling.

The opinions and experiences of academic stakeholders for both the wet and dry lab team have only served to benefit our team by filling the gaps of knowledge that could not be learnt from literature. With these gaps filled in, our team could actively work on redesigning and deciphering the results gained from experiments, which is necessary to ensure the feasibility of our solution

First Nation people are widely-recognised as the first scientists, not only in Australia but around the world. Over time, the practices followed by this community have shown great adaptability and efficacy but the application of these practices in a contemporary setting has only been explored relatively recently (Narragunnawali Reconciliation in Schools and Early Learning, n.d.).

For this year’s Phase II project, we wanted to continue engaging with our Traditional Owner counterparts and explore the narrative of why the Great Barrier Reef is so important to these communities and how we can best serve this community. On the advice of A/Prof Daniel Robinson, we tried to follow the Talanoa research methodology, established by Pasifika social science researchers, which is equivalent to narrative interviews that reflect on the lived realities of the individual instead (Fa’avae, Jones and Manu’atu, 2016).In addition to this, we formulated the below-listed questions in a semi-structured interview format, which is a form of participatory research.

  1. Where did the totemic relationship existing between the Great Barrier Reef and Traditional Owner communities develop from, and how would coral bleaching impact this relationship?
  2. What is the perspective of the Traditional Owner communities towards synthetic biology?

Manuwuri was incredibly accommodating to our rudimentary understanding of the connection between Traditional Owners and the Great Barrier Reef. She reinforced the need to acquire informed consent from those in the community during the early stages of developing our GMO product. Her invaluable advice regarding maintaining communication with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from the dawn of our project was also monumental in shaping the future direction of our project.

David Wachenfeld

Will Howard

Kevin Gale

Now that the UNSW iGEM team has entered the second phase of our project, the prospect of implementing our solution has become increasingly viable. As one of our proposed end-users, our relation with government bodies is necessary for the future funding and implementation of our solution. As emphasised in our conversation with Will Howard, “science and research is about giving society as many policy options as possible”. Considering that our project is still in the very early stages, our goal for interacting with government organisations was to learn how to best communicate our project to demonstrate its value and feasibility. Our second goal has been to better understand the public perspective of our solution, and how we can better communicate our values to the public. The government is accountable for the people connected to the GBR, with motivations secured by legislation to act in the best interest of the environment and the surrounding communities.

Pro Dive Cairns

Cairns Tourist Information Centre

Cairns Visitor Centre

Mike Ball Dive Expeditions

In our 2021 vision for Human Practices, we desired to extend the scope of values considered to add extra depth to our project. This was the basis for contacting local businesses in North Queensland to understand from their perspective:

  1. What are the current and future impacts posed by coral bleaching on business operations?
  2. What is the perspective of the tourism industry towards synthetic biology?

We found these insights to be invaluable in learning more about economic values. Hearing from local businesses such as dive operators and tourism centers, helped us understand their concerns and ideas for their future so we could create an appropriate solution. As the GBR is critical for Australia's tourism industry and contributes over $6.5 million annually to our GDP. It is important we consider the opinions of local businesses and gain acceptance from the public, and ensure that the solution is aligned to their needs and can support their livelihoods.

Integrating Advice from Academics
Brendan Burns

Brendan provided guidance on the several considerations regarding propped implementation and project design. Brendan suggested that in future testing of our systems in algae it is vital to consider the interaction between the coral and other species in the environment. Wet lab took this into consideration when assessing our proposed implementation. Additionally, Brendan provided positive feedback on the expression control mechanism, using OxyR, stating it could help mediate the competitive advantage the modified algae had over other species. This supported wet lab’s ongoing research into applying a ROS inducible system to the project as additional control measures.

Wallace Bridge

Professor Bridge strongly emphasised the importance of maintaining homeostasis between glutathione and ROS in our experimental chassis and Symbiodinium. He suggested we investigate the master transcription factor from Symbiodinium involved in regulating glutathione homeostasis as it may hinder the performance of overexpressed glutathione. We have taken this into consideration and will perform further research in this direction when our experiments do not produce expected results. He also advised us to characterize glutathione activity in a eukaryotic chassis and we have since made modifications to our proposed glutathione experimental design to also be performed using yeast vectors. In addition, he proposed the idea of performing directed evolution experiments on algae as an alternative to genetic engineering. His input added a new perspective to our design solutions and possible points of investigation when troubleshooting and fine-tuning our experimental design.

Ian Dawes

Professor Dawes suggested we use eukaryotic proteins for the glutathione system, particularly glutathione reductase and glutathione peroxidase, while keeping our ultimate goal of expressing the system in Symbiodinium sp in mind. He recommended the use of eukaryotic genes for glutathione peroxidase and reductase over bacterial genes. From his recommendation, we decided to use genes from Chlamydomonas reinhardtii as opposed to our initial plan of using Streptococcus thermophilus.

Marc Wilkins

Professor Wilkins advised us that the transit peptide of most proteins that localise to plasmids is cleaved off during membrane transport, which we took into account when determining the sequence from which to structurally model our heat shock protein of interest. We also incorporated his guidance around using docking platform Haddock, which can specify more precise restraints when information is known about the reliability of subunit structure, using this to refine our modelling of the heat shock protein’s oligomeric structure.

Lars Nielsen

Professor Nielsen’s advice surrounding kinetic modelling was incorporated into developing insights into the performance of our proposed glutathione system. He advised us to consider what remains constant in the system, such as whether the NADPH ratio and pool are likely to be in significant flux, or to be balanced by external systems. We considered his advice when formulating the key assumptions for our kinetic model. Professor Nielsen also introduced us to the idea of ensemble modelling to address issues surrounding the broad spectrum of data available for enzyme kinetic constants.

David Burt

Our conversation with David Burt encouraged us to reevaluate how we wanted to go about implementing our project, and decide what types of funding was most appropriate for us to seek out in order to continue the development of our project. Upon reevaluation, we have decided that our solution is not suited for commercialisation. Instead, we have decided that the end users of our project will be government and non-government organisations who are focused on protecting the coral reefs, rather than gaining profit from our solution.

Integrating Advice from Traditional Owners
Traceylee Manuwuri Forester

During our conversation with Traceylee Manuwuri Forester, she emphasised on the importance of fostering honest and open communication with Indigenous communities and blend the voices of Indigenous people and Western Science from the grassroots stage of a Scientific discovery - whether that may be in the Wet & Dry Lab setting or in our ethics framework.

To further the understanding of those who aren’t familiar with this intrinsic bond between the Traditional Owner communities and this Heritage listed site, the iGEM team have decided to place Traditional Owner perspectives at the forefront at each stage of our developmental process. This is reflected in the pipeline we have developed for the forthcoming years, which we hope to adhere to during the developmental stages of the PROTECC Coral project.

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 restrictions, we haven’t been able to conduct our own field research and engage with Elders in the community regarding our project. However, we fully intend to see through this opportunity in the following stages of our project.

Integrating Advice from Government Bodies
Kevin Gale

The meeting with Kevin Gale reaffirmed our decision of using an adaptive approach by enhancing the capacity of the species to withstand varying environmental conditions, instead of developing strategies to address these varying conditions, instead. This is attributed to the ever-rising sea temperatures and our society’s inability to curb this change before it causes significant damage on the Great Barrier Reef. In addition to this, the overlap between the reefs playing an integral role in supporting Australia’s economy and the threat of being placed on the World Heritage Commitee’s endangered list would be one of the main drivers for the Government to invest in novel technologies that can improve these circumstances.

However, Kevin highlighted that one of the largest impediments before/during its implementation could be the public’s hesitation to accept this solution to the coral bleaching events. This could be attributed to the mistrust in Science based on previous experiences, lack of understanding of the genetically engineered algae symbiont’s mechanism or the potential lack of transparency on our end.

To diminish the disconnect between the general public and science, we developed a survey that analysed the public’s perception of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their perspectives on our proposed solution, and the feedback provided reiterated the need to maintain transparency from our end. Amassing over an astounding 260 responses, we enacted this response by creating a comprehensive risk assessment that provides solutions to mitigate any foreseeable risks from the implementation of our product.

David Wachenfeld

David informed us that in order to prove our solution is feasible, we need to consider the vest complexity of the marine ecosystem on the Great Barrier Reef. He pointed out how the complex nature of the marine ecosystem and the coral holobiont would make it an even greater challenge to control the impact of our solution than we initially perceived. David also provided us with valuable information regarding the final stages of our proposed implementation. He informed us about the interconnected nature of the coral reefs, and how the spawn of certain reefs are more likely to end up on other reefs by action of the ocean current. This prompted us to consider where we will transfer our symbiodinium-coral system for the in-situ release of our solution. He advised us that we should aim to target the ‘hub of reefs’, in places where the coral spawns can reach the maximum amount of reefs and hence maximise the impact of our solution.

Will Howard

Our conversation with Will Howard highlighted the many reasons why using an artificial reed simulator is crucial for the Proposed Implementation of our project. He offered us a better understanding of the government and ethical concerns regarding the use of genetically modified species into the environment, explaining that humans have made devastating errors with the environment already in the past. He also motivated us to become more proactive when considering all the risks involved with our Proposed Implementation, emphasising how the effects that we cause on the environment in the future can be very difficult to foresee until it is already too late.

Integrating Advice from Business Owners

Our consultations with business owners highlighted a unanimous concern. A significant disconnect exists between the information being shared by the media about coral bleaching and the true extent of the issue encountered by local tourism providers. Many people in the public are under the impression the whole Great Barrier Reef is “dead” following news coverage of mass bleaching events. Negative publicity about the GBR is particularly being spread on global news outlets, as tourism providers noticed a decline from international customers. If the current rate of mass bleaching events continues to occur, there is fear that the tourism industry could be significantly altered in the future.

To target the disconnect, we decided there was a need to educate the public about coral bleaching. We developed a public survey to understand their current level of knowledge about coral bleaching and we discovered the majority of people could not describe the issue. This reflected the feedback from tourism providers, who have now shifted their business activities to educating the public in order to receive business. In turn, we also focused our efforts in science communications, by developing a gamulation and outreach efforts that would effectively allow us to engage with the public and act as a learning opportunity to bridge the knowledge gap. These materials can be viewed in the Science Communication tab.

Moreover, we noticed there was a lack of understanding about the potential of synthetic biology for restoring coral reefs. Most businesses expressed fear and apprehension about the proposed solution. This highlighted that we need to more extensively consult local communities and increase knowledge of genetic engineering techniques, which we have aimed to do in our science communications. In the future, we believe that economic values can be integrated into the solution by involving more local businesses and creating open dialogue about the reef with tourism providers.


What does the public think about using genetic engineering to target the issue of coral bleaching?

Designing a solution that is responsible and good for the world requires understanding the opinions and values of wider society. Integral to our solution was incorporating a people-centric approach, including a diversity of perspectives from the public to help inform the development of our project.

Our online survey was sent to the public and we received 260 responses. We asked for their opinions on using synthetic biology to restore our reefs and target coral bleaching.

There are 4 sections in our survey:
  1. Public perceptions towards using genetic engineering to restore coral reefs
  2. Public perspective on safety concerns associated with genetic engineering techniques
  3. Public engagement
  4. Demographic data

Our survey was significantly shaped by a CSIRO report on ‘Public perceptions of using synthetic biology to restore the Great Barrier Reef’. The CSIRO report can be found in the references (CSIRO, 2020). For a detailed view of the questions we asked to the public, our survey design can be downloaded here.

Public perceptions towards using genetic engineering to restore coral reefs

Knowledge of coral bleaching

Our survey found the majority of the public (94%) know about coral bleaching. Only 48% of participants indicated they were able to understand and describe the issue. This showed to us there was a knowledge gap in the public and a need to educate others about coral bleaching beyond a surface level of recognition.

Most of the public (63%) gathered their knowledge of coral bleaching from social media. The most common sources of information for hearing about coral bleaching included social media, school/university, TV and websites. This helped us understand the public was digesting information mostly from the media and in turn, our project should seek to increase their access to accurate information.

Attitudes towards coral bleaching

96% of the public either strongly agree or agree that coral bleaching is a significant threat to our environment.

Impressions of genetic engineering

Our research found the majority of individuals (75%) strongly agree or agree with supporting the use of genetic engineering to restore coral reefs.

To understand the emotional impact of genetic engineering, we asked participants to select three emotions that best described their feelings towards this technology. The overwhelming majority were Curious and Interested (82%) and Hopeful (77%). On the other side of the spectrum, the emotions of feeling Nervous (15%) and Fearful (5%) were only selected by a minority of the public. This signified to us the psychological impact of our proposed technology was mostly positive and the public was interested to learn more about the future of synthetic biology.

Risk management

When asked if there were more benefits than risks of using genetic engineering, the most common response was Neutral (46%), indicating there was apprehension from the public about the risks vs benefits of the proposed technology. This hesitant attitude was further highlighted when participants were asked if genetic engineering is harmful for the environment. 57% of the public held a Neutral opinion about the technology being harmful and only 33% disagreed with the statement. These public perspectives are vital for our research team to know, as insights gathered from the public’s understanding of the risks and benefits of genetic engineering can help shape the development of our project.

Regulation and trust

Only 40% strongly agree-agree that the government can be trusted to approve and regulate the technology to ensure it is safe to use. Most of the public (38%) had a neutral opinion about the government being able to regulate this technology responsibly. Evidently, we recognised a pain point in the implementation of our project would be establishing trust between society and government bodies.

Most individuals (73%) strongly agree-agree that scientists can be trusted to develop this technology responsibility. We found people were supportive of scientific processes and trusted researchers to develop a socially responsible technology.

Public perspective on safety concerns associated with genetic engineering techniques

Many individuals (57%) agreed they were concerned about the potential long-term risks of genetic engineering. Our survey aimed to understand the risks associated with the technology from the wider perspective of the public. When asked to detail the perceived safety concerns of our solution, we found the public feedback focused on 5 core concerns detailed below:

  1. Adverse impact on the marine environment
    • We need to focus on how our solution could impact ecosystem dynamics, as the public cited a reduction in genetic diversity, flow on effects in the food chain and overpopulation of bio-engineered species as key concerns.
    • “Since coral is also a food source for some marine species, could the potential genetic engineering cause harm to any other species?”
    • “Would there be issues where the coral becomes uncontrollable?”
  2. Long term or unforeseen risks of genetic engineering
    • A long term mindsight is required to ensure we have the proper risk management in place and an understanding of how this technology may alter the environment.
    • “Potential long term issues, where the coral may not last as long or the behaviour of coral is irregular due to having new genes that could affect the life of coral, compared to the normal.”
  3. Rigorous testing prior to implementation
    • Many in the public were worried about the irreversible impacts of the technology if released early, referring to the cane toad example. The public desires long term testing to prevent short sighted decisions being made.
    • “It would require long term testing to really know the risk to the environment. Society has a history of making short sighted quick decisions. For instance, introducing cane toads to Queensland. There's no real way of knowing what modified coral will do to the delicate ecosystem.”
  4. Unsure of regulations
    • Uncertainty over who controls this technology and the regulations governing its use in society.
    • “It’s still such a new technology, unsure about what regulations there are”
    • “Who will have access to this technology?”
  5. Small scale, band aid solution
    • The public may view this solution as a temporary fix to the larger problem of climate change impacting ecosystems
    • “May be only a small scale, temporary solution, & therefore maybe will fail.”

Public perspective on safety concerns associated with genetic engineering techniques

The public showed a high level of interest with learning more about our solution, with 73% of individuals indicating they were curious to stay engaged with our project.

We wanted to understand what questions the public had about our project, in order to improve our solution and better address the needs of the wider community. We found 50% of the public wanted to provide feedback which signified there was great interest in learning about synthetic biology. We identified 8 key themes as shown below.

By thematically analysing the responses from the public, we determined these to be the most important themes and in doing so, we aim to reflect the voices of the public in our HP section:

  1. Risks of genetic engineering (55%):
    • Significant desire to learn more about the potential risks of this technology such as unintended mutations and how these risks will be mitigated.
    • “Are there any risks of implementing this in a large environment where not all factors can be controlled?”
  2. Impact on the environment (50%):
    • The public strongly wants to preserve coral reefs and not impact the existing marine environment in a negative way
    • “Will this affect the other species around the Great Barrier Reef?”
  3. Scientific techniques and experimental design (46%):
    • Most of the public is unfamiliar with genetic engineering and find the terminology confusing or foreign so there is a need to better explain the scientific techniques we are applying in our solution. Essentially, we should answer, “how does it work in the lab” to the public.
    • “How is it done? Which genes are used and if applicable, from what organism?”
    • “Forecasting techniques you're using to simulate how your solution will work in the real-world environment”
  4. Ethics (25%):
    • We should focus on discussing ethical values in our project and how we devised a solution to meet ethical frameworks.
    • “I don’t know enough about the potential risks and ethics associated so that would be interesting to know”
  5. Proposed Implementation (18%)
    • Importantly, we found the public wants to know how we will bring our solution to the market? Central to our proposed implementation is addressing the scope, timelines and scale of our project, to be reflective of this feedback.
    • “The scope of the solution and rollout strategy in a timeline”
    • “the timeline of development and implementation…the ability for government decisions to consider scientific and environmental advice instead of economic advice”

In the future, most of the public would like to be engaged in the discussion about our project through an infographic summarising our key findings (67%) or social media posts (60%). In turn, we’ve actively sought out to use more visuals and easy to read, bite size pieces of information to engage with our public in this year’s project. As well as consistently posting on our social media channels about our project updates to align with this valuable feedback. Our team hopes to in the future seek new ways of engaging with the public in order to better meet their needs.

Demographic data

Our survey was conducted using an online Microsoft Forms and the survey link was then distributed to interested parties. The survey was completed by 260 individuals between the 21st of July – 13th of October 2021. The majority of individuals (80%) were located in Australia and 20% were International. Most of the participants (66%) were aged 19-24, owing to our close ties to a university demographic. Thus, 62% indicated they were currently studying at university. There was a diverse range of employment statuses, with full-time, part-time and unemployed being the 3 most common responses. Out of 260 respondents, the majority selected high school as the highest level of education completed (n=120), followed by a bachelor’s degree (n=104).

A few key limitations of our survey demographic that should be noted:

  • 0.01% identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander
  • 72% of participants were located in NSW (the location of our university)
  • The gender was skewed towards Females (69.2%)
  • The representation rates of age groups outside of the 19-24 bracket could be improved

In the future, when considering the demographics of our survey, we hope to be more reflective of the broader Australian population. Given the restraints of lockdown and an inability to engage with the public in person, we still find these insights valuable in providing an indication of societal opinions towards using genetic engineering to restore coral reefs.

How did the opinions and feedback of the public shape our project?
1. Risk Management

We discovered the majority of the general public were worried about the potential risks of implementing our genetically engineered solution into nature. Many individuals in the survey (57%) agreed they were concerned about the potential long-term risks of genetic engineering. They desired to learn more about the risks associated with our scientific design and then, how we would plan to mitigate them. It is human nature for people to be afraid of the unknown and we as scientists should seek to educate the public and address their concerns.The first step our team undertook was to acknowledge the many risks posed by foreign, introduced species especially with GMOs. Marine ecosystems are highly dynamic and interconnected, where the functions of many species are still unknown.

To ensure our solution is safe for the environment and we meet the public needs for security and transparent information, we devised a risk management strategy. In our strategy, we intend to extensively study our solution in a simulated marine environment so the complexities of the coral holobionts and the diverse marine ecosystem can be fully considered. This small scale testing will ensure we meet the public’s need for safety and we can implement our solution on a larger scale with the acceptance of society. Further information on the marine stimulation can be found in the Proposed Implementation section.

2. Safety Concerns

In our survey feedback, there was a lot of fear and concern about the unintended invasion of GMOs outside of its intended environment, with many remembering the invasive cane toad example in Australian history. The majority of people were curious to learn if there would be an adverse impact on the marine environment such as an overpopulation of bio-engineered species and chain effects on other marine species. So we concentrated our efforts on exploring a kill switch option, to align our project with the needs of the public and in doing so, better integrate biosafety considerations. The proposed kill switch would result in cell death upon exposure to particular environmental conditions such as change in pH which would stop our algae species integrating into other species.

3. Proposed Implementation

The public wanted to learn more about how we will bring our solution to the market and the timeline of our project. When asked what information they would like to see in our project, common responses included the “timeline of development”, “government approval processes” and “rollout strategy.” Our Proposed Implementation section goes into detail with describing our proposed entry into the market to be mindful of this feedback. We contacted the Head of Entrepreneurship at UNSW, David Burt to gain a professional opinion about whether it was viable to commercialise our idea and to understand the timeline of implementing our solution. These insights were valuable in addressing key questions from the public and helped us to decide which route of commercialisation to undertake.

4. Future Engagement

Importantly, we desired to learn the best medium for engaging with the public to ensure we could facilitate a valuable learning experience. In the future, most of the public would like to be engaged in the discussion about our project through a visual infographic summarising our key findings (67%) or social media posts (60%). These insights were highly useful for our science communications team as they were deciding the best ways of reaching the public. We’ve actively sought out ways to use more interactive visual mediums and created an introductory short video to explain our project in simple English to our audience. By continuing our engagement with posts on our social media channels and the development of a gamulation, we hope to communicate our project in an easily accessible way to the public that doesn’t take away from explaining the fundamental science. This approach is centered on increasing access to the often confusing terminology surrounding synthetic biology and being mindful of incorporating simple, easy to read pieces of information to keep the public engaged. Our team hopes in the future we can seek new ways of engaging with the public in order to continue meeting their needs.

Reiterating Our Values

From the feedback provided by the stakeholders and responses obtained from our survey, we felt as though our initial values did not truly reflect the ethos of our project at this particular stage. Using this newfound information, we alter our values and prioritise them according to the Consequentialist framework that we had touched upon earlier.

  • Creating an adaptive solution that protects the coral reefs from climate change.
  • Continuously engaging with those impacted by coral bleaching and the implementation of our solution
  • Staying “Responsible” and communicating with the wider population regarding the impact of our solution, at different stages.
  • Can be easily integrated into the natural environment, and causes minimal to no impact on its surrounding ecosystem.
  • Maintain the diverse landscape of the coral reefs.
  • An alternative that is financially-conservative and can be replicated on a larger scale

Revisiting and altering our values after communicating with our stakeholders is a demonstration of closing the loop between what was initially designed and what was desired at the end. The reason for this change was so that the values that shaped our solution matched up to the needs of our stakeholders. In the section below, we will summarise how these values informed our decisions at different stages of the project:

Creating an adaptive solution that protects the coral reefs from climate change.

This value has remained unchanged from the beginning of our research, as the research that was conducted on our part has stressed on the need to develop adaptive alternatives instead due to the rapidly changing nature of climate change.

We needed to create a project that revolved around this principle, thus we genetically engineered our Symbiodinium to be capable of neutralising toxic ROS, which enables it to be thermostable despite the ocean’s rising temperatures. We understand that this does not directly affect the problem of climate change, but it is important to this issue from all angles - whether that be through low-regret solutions, climate-targeted solutions or by ameliorating the conditions of the ocean water.

Maintaining continuous, respectful engagement with those impacted by coral bleaching and the implementation of our solution.

This value has been slightly changed from “Being inclusive of those impacted by coral bleaching and the implementation of our solution”. The substitution to “Maintaining continuous, respectful engagement” encompasses being inclusive of our stakeholders and maintaining this bond throughout the different phases of our experiment.

As a result of COVID-19, our resources were limited and meeting a member from one of the communities impacted we were unable to meet members of the community and engage with these communities regarding the current status of the coral bleaching events and our proposed solution. However, we found that our conversation with Traceylee Manuwuri Forester was the right, first step we needed to take to understand how to approach the community, the language to be used whilst engaging with these individuals and how to broach the topic of introducing our genetically engineered solution into the appropriate zones. Our continued hope for the Phase III team is to use this advice before approaching Traditional Owner communities, and continue using the Talanoa methodology, which will reflect on the lived realities of the individual instead.

Staying “Responsible” and communicating with the wider population regarding the impact of our solution, at different stages.

The introduction of this value was in response to the third and final aspect of the pillar - “Responsible”. The conversations we had with our different stakeholder subgroups provided us with a rounded understanding regarding the positives and risks that we might face with the introduction of this product. Whilst assessing the feedback using the Consequentialist framework, we felt as though the pros had far outweighed the cons of introducing a genetically modified organism and this was a significant indicator that our solution, for the most part, was responsible and good for the world.

In addition to this, we wanted to prioritise solving the disconnect between the public and science by communicating the afore-mentioned impact of our solution, in an open and honest way. Thus, we developed a risk assessment table in our “Proposed Implementation” stage which highlighted certain foreseeable risks, and how we would mitigate these issues. We hope that this is only the beginning of serving the humans in our human-centred approach and hope to continue with initiatives as such in the future.

Can be easily integrated into the natural environment, and causes minimal to no impact on its surrounding ecosystem.

In light of safety concerns addressed in our “Proposed Implementation” section, we have also designed a kill switch that could act as a biocontainment system in our engineered Symbiodinium. When exposed to certain environmental conditions, our kill switch triggers cell death within the algae, preventing integration into any other species. In Phase III of our project, we would like to explore the viability of the kill switch in a laboratory setting in light of biodiversity and microbial interactions, with the aim to produce a solution that is both safe for the surrounding ecosystem of the GBR, as well as people who depend on it. In addition to this, an ‘adaptive’ solution to coral bleaching creates space for learning, risk management and staged implementation; processes that can help safeguard our solution.

Maintain the diverse landscape of the coral reefs.

When engaging with our Business stakeholders, each stakeholder stressed that the proposed solution should not interfere with the appearance of the reefs as this is one of the most significant reasons for tourists visiting this region. Therefore, it was important for us to create a solution that would not disturb this appearance, and thus the livelihoods of our stakeholders.

PROTECC Coral’s synthetic biology solution is to engineer a naturally occurring microalgae Symbiodinium, which will potentially alleviate the issues of coral bleaching and the consequential impacts, but also maintain the reef’s outward appearance. By engineering a natural species of coral that currently exists, we can maintain the appearance of the naturality of the reef.

An alternative that is financially-conservative and can be replicated on a larger scale.

We believe it is important in determining whether a solution can be realistically applied to the real world to make a positive impact. Throughout our project, we made decisions to keep our solution low in cost, which, in turn, increases its potential scalability. For example, by working with E. coli for the majority of our designing, building and testing phases of our project, we saved both time and costs. If we had begun experimenting on Symbiodinium earlier in our project, we would have increased costs dramatically, and the progress required for our solution would not have been financially viable.

We hope to work alongside government-affiliated organisations such as the Australian Institute of Marine Science to replicate this experiment on a larger scale. This access to shared resources would allow for our solution to be practical, financially.

The Future of PROTECC Coral

Fostering Social Narratives around GMOs

Our survey marked the first step in resolving the disconnect between the general public and science. We found ourselves reflecting with numerous stakeholders, from Kevin Gale to local business owners about the lack of two way conversation about GMOs in the context of targeting coral bleaching. We recognised this disconnect could pose a significant issue to the public acceptance of our proposed solution. The key way to target this concern would be to first and foremost increase the awareness of GMOs in the public and spread accurate, well informed materials.

But would the public be interested in being engaged in our discussions? To better understand the needs of the public, we asked this question in our survey and discovered 73% of people were interested in learning more about our solution. Given the high interest levels of the public, we should continue to foster their innate curiosity towards science and encourage open communication. This would help us foster an inclusive social narrative of GMOs in the public.

In future phases of our project, we would like to explore new and exciting ways to build awareness of GMOs and receive feedback from the public. This could be in the form of polls on social media, Q&A forums and school presentations for younger audiences. We would aim to have a prototype developed and presented in the storyboard to receive more feedback and iterate our final design.

Further, we hope to expand the reach of our survey and have a more representative demographic makeup. We would like to continue the conversation about GMOs in local communities in QLD surrounding the GB. The majority (72%) of our responses were from NSW and from a predominantly university background. By seeking to create a more widely inclusive survey, we can ensure we create a solution that is ethical and socially responsible.

Our Impact

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world and a hallmark of Australia’s global identity. The GBR contains over 600 coral species, accounting for three-quarters of the world's coral population. The biodiversity along the reef’s expanse is immense and the interconnectedness of species and habitats make the GBR and surrounding marine ecosystem one of the most complex natural systems on earth. Maintaining a healthy and diverse ecosystem on the GBR is essential to facilitate the recovery and adapt to the impacts of climate stress. A healthy reef environment provides the essential resources that support many industries and local businesses. The GBR also represents a deep connection between humans and the land, with sacred connections of Traditional owners to the reef dating back tens of thousands of years (Peixoto et al., 2017).

Our research’s value goes beyond our contribution to protecting the coral reefs from the impacts of climate change. As we discussed in our conversation with Will Howard, the value of synthetic biology research is not only derived from the potential success of the solution, but the fact that we are inadvertently broadening the pool of knowledge surrounding algal symbiotes and the mechanisms of thermal tolerance. Another important point from our conversations with Will Howard is that “science and research is about giving society as many policy options as possible”. By designing our solution and our proposed implementation, we are furthering the available options for the government to take action against climate change and simultaneously, demonstrating the significance of the GBR to our stakeholders.

Proposed Implementation

Being in the second phase of our project, our team has had plenty of time to consider the potential implementation of our solution. Last year, our team integrated the perspectives and advice from our stakeholders to devise a three-step proposed implementation that ensures the ‘safest’ possible delivery of our solution.

  1. Ex-Situ Testing: Long-term observation of modified Symbiodinium impacts on the coral and greater biodiversity, within a controlled and contained environment simulating ocean conditions.

  2. In-Situ Testing In Multiple Areas of Low Biodiversity: Long-term observation of modified Symbiodinium impacts on coral in a natural yet depleted coral environment. This reduces the risk of negative impacts on other coral species and surrounding biodiversity.

  3. In-Situ Release In Area of Normal Biodiversity: If both previous stages are successful, then the genetically modified Symbiodinium-coral system may be released in the natural environment with standard biodiversity conditions. Continual observation of the environment would be necessary.

The devastating impacts of climate change, particularly to our marine ecosystems have seen a shift in public attitudes towards a greater acceptance of synthetic biology solutions. This has been evident in our responses to our survey, in which 75% of respondents agreed with the statement that “I would support genetic engineering to save the coral reefs”. Nonetheless, the implementation of a genetically modified solution into the environment comes with many challenges that must be addressed in order for us to implement such solutions. Hence, it is important for our team that when approaching our Proposed Implementation, we take careful consideration of the technical, safety, ethical and socio-cultural considerations. These considerations have been addressed in our Proposed Implementation section of Human Practices.


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