According to the World Bank, the total world electric power consumption in 2014 almost reached 3.2 thousand kWh per capita, and the trend continues to increase linearly. China’s electric power consumption in 2014 is 3.9 thousand kWh per capita, which is higher than the world average. As the fastest growing economy, China’s electric power consumption is increasing exponentially and until 2014, up to 99.998% of the population has access to electricity.
Upon noticing this high demand for electricity, our team drafted an eco-friendly solution of using glowing plants to replace light. To ensure that our project can gain the public’s approval, we first gathered statistical data from China’s largest online selling platform, Taobao.
Although these “glowing” products glow in a different way than our tobacco plants, the numbers are enough to show the popularity of luminescent products. If we could make our plants auto-luminescent, then it is very likely that the public would accept it. We further conducted a survey to ensure this hypothesis.
In our survey, we designed a total of 9 questions in both Chinese and English investigating the public’s interest and opinion on luminescent plants. We distributed the survey via social media platforms such as WeChat, Facebook, Instagram and received 391 responses in total. In order to make our survey more scientific, we designed our questions carefully and most questions include a variety of options and an additional box for respondents to either pick from or fill out their own answers. Also, we avoided polar questions with binary— “yes” or “no”— answers. Instead, we included a scale from 1 to 5 for respondents to pick from.
The demographics of our respondents include twice as many females than males, and nearly 40% are below the age of 18 while about 24% are between 41 to 50 years old. The age demographics of the survey may seem unbalanced due to the large percentage of respondents under 18. However, the amount of economically independent and dependent respondents is approximately even as 49.13% are below 25 years old and 49.87% are above 25. As a result, we are able to collect voices from both younger and elder audiences.
Understanding of and Interest in Luminescent Plants
In order to investigate our respondents’ level of understanding of luminescent plants, we prepared a question for it specifically. From the results, we can conclude that most of our respondents have certain knowledge about luminescent plants previously. As a result, they may be able to provide more insights or opinions about luminescent plants.
Next, we provided an example photo of a luminescent plant and asked respondents to rate how likely they would purchase the plant. Around 16% of the respondents are not at all likely to purchase the plant while 33% of the respondents are extremely likely to purchase the plants. However, the average score given is 3.47 and the standard deviation is 1.91, showing that the results are less focused as the majority remains uncertain. This is a reasonable result as exact details and functions of the plant are not yet provided, and it also demonstrates the difficulty to conclude whether people will purchase luminescent plants or not.
Follow up Question— Reason for Unwilling to Purchase
Next, a follow-up question is designed for those who are not at all likely to purchase luminescent plants in the previous question. Given 5 possible choices to choose from, the two most common reasons of not purchasing are “concerned with potential health effects” and “prefer a regular night lamp or other decorations.” As a result, this emphasizes the importance of reassuring the safety of our synthetic luminescent plant and making sure that it has no negative effects on human health. At the same time, it is also important for us to improve the luminescent plants’ functions, such as brightness or life span, in order to separate it from regular night lamps.
Follow Up Question— Willing to Purchase
For those who chose anything other than “not at all likely to purchase the luminescent plant,” we prepared follow up questions investigating their acceptable range of price for the plant and any concerns.
In our 6th question, the result of acceptable price ranges seems to be relatively equally distributed, indicating that the public’s opinions are widely divided as respondents fall in various age ranges.
From the results of question 7, we can conclude that the most common use of luminescent plants is for decoration as around 88% of the respondents chose it. In addition, multiple people included using the plant as a study material for children to observe as one of the purposes in the extra commentary box. Thus, the purpose of bioluminescent plants may not just be for decoration or lighting; in fact, it can also serve as teaching material for genetic engineering.
Furthermore, the results of question 8, similar to question 5, demonstrates that the largest concern people have for luminescent plants is the plants’ effect on human health. In addition, numerous people mentioned the life expectancy of the synthetic bioluminescent plant as they are concerned whether the process of genetic modification will damage the plant’s health. Also, they are concerned whether the luminescent plants can be easily taken care of or kept alive. These additional commentaries indicate that besides the appearance or brightness of the plant, another important task is to make sure that the plant remains healthy and buyers can easily take care of it.
At the end of the survey, we asked our respondents to rate our current research and development on a scale from 1 to 5 so that we can investigate the public’s overall interest in the development and research of bioluminescent plants. Around 60% rated 5 and the average rating is 4.31, with a standard deviation of 1.32. This shows that the majority of respondents are supportive of our research of luminescent plants. In other words, although people hold questions and uncertainties about luminescent plants, such as the price, life span etc., the market for luminescent plants remains potential as people are interested in this product.
Integration of Survey to our Project
The survey not only allows us to have a better idea of the public opinion about luminescent plants but also the possible improvements that can be made when designing how to inject the gene into the plant. Since the health of the plant is a common concern by a large group of people, we decided to use agrobacterium mediated transformation instead of gene gun to inject the desired gene into the plant. This is because the use of gene gun, is more harmful to the plants as plant cells are likely to be damaged during the bombardment of particles. Thus, we chose a milder and safer method for the plants.
Also, we used transient transfection during injection so the luminescence gene is not inserted into the cellular genome. Thus, the luminance of the plant will not be carried to the next generation, and customers do not need to worry about possible harms to health or mutation of the plant.
Educational Activity at Shanghai Primary School
In tandem with conducting research for our project, we conducted two introductory lessons in May on molecular biotechnology for a class of primary five students from Shanghai Primary School. We hope that by providing the children with basic knowledge of the theories behind genetic engineering, we can plant seeds of curiosity that may later develop into a passion for synthetic biology and promote them to become future bio-engineers.
We first introduced the history of genetic engineering and its applications in the real world. Stroke by stroke, we painted a clear image of our project for the children, as well as simplifying the mechanisms behind it to allow the children to understand. After our lecture, the children responded with passionate inquiries. Through our explanation of the basic mechanisms of genetic engineering, we debunked many myths the children had for genetic modified organisms.
Integration to Our Project
Throughout the course of teaching, we found that many children were concerned with the potential harm transgenic plants may have on the human body and whether our plants will discharge harmful radiation. This discussion reflected a common concern that the public—especially laymen—may have for our project. We reassured the children that we have always kept safety as our highest priority and researched as much as we can before conducting any experiments.
By reaching out towards the public, we were able to gain better knowledge of how the public viewed biotechnology and genetically modified organisms, which provided us with invaluable help when designing other human practice projects.
After conducting the survey and teaching kids at the primary school, we started the design for our experiment. Since most people are concerned with the possible health effects that auto-luminescent plants may have, we altered our original method of using gene guns to using agrobacterium-mediated transformation so that it would cause less damage to the plant. We also made a poster to explore more about the biosafety of using such a method.
We posted the survey and the poster on different social media platforms so we can target different audience. Since our main social outreach would be in China, we first created a WeChat official account to post regular updates on our project progress.
We also created facebook and instagram accounts so we can contact with different iGEM teams out there in the world.
Fundraising is also a major component of our human practice. We started a fundraising campaign on a famous Chinese fundraising website: Modian. Over the course of a few months, we raised a total of 4,601.11 RMB on Modian, most of which were spent on purchasing more lab consumables and reagents.
We also posted several updates on the website so that the project is more convincing to our donators.
Shanghai Botanical Garden Activity
Besides online public outreach, we also introduced our project and synthetic biology to the public in the Shanghai Botanical Garden.
After going through levels of applications and approvals, our team finally presented our iGEM project to the public and spread more knowledge about plants and synthetic biology in the Shanghai Botanical Garden, the largest plant display and science education garden in Shanghai. We deeply appreciate the opportunity that the Shanghai Botanical Garden provided us with and we are very honored.
On October 15th, six of our team members went to the Shanghai Botanical Garden for the exhibition. After considering the complexity that the public is able to understand, we simplified some of the experimental concepts and design process, focused on the more interesting topics and possible application of our product. In addition, we also explained the basic mechanisms behind synthetic biology to tourists showing demonstrated interests in this field and corrected some misconceptions relating to synthetic biology. We hope that this public outreach event could provide the public with a more authentic understanding of genetically modified products and genetic engineering. Our team members also learned a lot through this event. Through answering people’s questions about our project, or just synthetic biology in general, we gained more presentation and discussion skills, which better prepare us for the upcoming Giant Jamboree presentation.
Our Exhibition Brochure
Poster designed for the event: simplified so easier for public to understand
Integration to Our Project
After the event, we developed new thoughts about our project.
"We actually had a lot of questions about GMO plants like corn and soybean. Our project is essentially a GMO but it’s not used in the food industry, so it kind of shows a more diversified aspect of genetic engineering, one that does not only pertain to food, which is what we think about usually when we think about genetic engineering." —Mei Ku
"Through communicating with the public, we discovered that people are actually very supportive and interested in bio-luminescence and related applications. We also realized the possible damages that these products may have on our health and the environment, as it is shown to be a major concern among our audience. After the event, I believe our team has a deeper understanding of the impact that this product can have on the society and the environment as well as the significance of application in the future." —Kathy Cheng Wang
"One of the most commonly question asked at the exhibition was whether our bioluminescent plants have potential harmful effects on the environment, which showed the public’s general concern for genetically modified organisms. Thus, we became more aware of our responsibility to design new genes to maximally benefit the human being while posing minimal threat to the environment. We plan to put our plant in environment with different humidity and temperatures and investigate its effect on the environment to make sure they don’t interfere with other organisms." —Wen-Jou Chang
Through this event, our team realized the importance of correcting some misconceptions about GMOs as our project is in a way a type of GMO. It is also important to make sure that our auto-luminescent plant is not a threat to the environment or our health. Moreover, the public appears to be very interested in bio-luminescence. Although our project may not be bright enough to light up the entire street, we still hope that by making this project today, improved methods will follow in the future.