Team:Hong Kong HKUST/Public Engagement

iGem HKUST 2018 Hielo by TEMPLATED

Synthetic Biology Exhibition during the HKUST Information Day

  • Date: 29th September, 2018
  • Time: 9:00 - 17:00
  • Venue: HKUST Academic concourse


Microbial fuel cell (MFC) is considered as a type of renewable bioenergy that transforms chemical energy into electrical energy. However, microbial fuel cells still pose advantages and disadvantages like other types of renewable energies. In order to minimize the disadvantages and to make MFC a best-suited renewable energy source for Hong Kong, the HKUST team tries to bring the idea of MFC to the public and raise further discussions for improvement of our design. We did this by organizing an exhibition booth during the HKUST Information Day with the following aims:

  1. Promote synthetic biology as a tool to solve current problems and explain on how the synthetic biology field tries to involve safety, ethics, policies, and the environment into our research and product designs.
  2. Promote renewable energies as part of our project theme of environmental sustainability.
  3. Integrate stakeholders to our product design by demonstrating our project and conducting surveys for the users to discover the public’s concerns and an area of focus for product improvements.

The university's information day aimed to provide undergraduate admission information for high school students from all over Hong Kong. Visitors in this events, therefore, mainly consist of senior high school students and their parents with the urge to find out more information about our university and the programs offered. We took this opportunity to conduct our public engagement and education for potential high school students to learn more about synthetic biology and will one day join us to improve our society.


To enhance active engagement, we have used 3D DNA and plasmid models to introduce the basic concepts of DNA as a coding tool for all living organisms and how recombinant technologies can combine functions of different organisms for the benefits of humans and the environment. Students were able to enhance their knowledge through hands-on trials of finding complementary sticky ends in individual plasmids and combines parts together by “ligation”. A mini-game of “How to build your own MFC” was also introduced to test the public’s understanding of our project after our thorough demonstration and explanations using posters and real models.

Poster shown in the exhibition:


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Other than public education on synthetic biology and MFC as a renewable energy, this exhibition also serves the purpose of initiating discussions and collect opinions through our survey on concerns that the public has when choosing renewable energy. Results from this survey will be used for the team to prioritize the area of focus for our MFC improvement.

When designing our survey, we have considered the fact that most of the public involved in the survey do not have the same level of knowledge of renewable energy. Therefore, our survey is designed such that it includes,

  • A short video in both Chinese and English to provide the public with the basic knowledge on how each renewable energy (wind energy, solar energy, and bioenergy) available in Hong Kong functions and each of their limitations.

    English Version

    Chinese Version

  • Pre and post video questions set based on 4 major groups of concerns:
    1. Environmental damage
    2. Impacts on human health
    3. Production constraints
    4. Cost to society

  • The pre video questions take on the assumption that the public has little or no knowledge to how each renewable energy functions. The question of concern only identifies the broad issues on whether the public value environment, health, production, or society the most.

  • Post video questions listed out the mentioned limitations of each renewable energy and ask specifically how the public values each limitation. These questions will trigger the inner thoughts for the public to identify the areas they concern when choosing energy. This should be done before they choose a specific type on energy. This part of the survey would allow us to select an area of focus when modifying our MFC since we cannot modify every aspect of the project due to the time constraints and financing.

  • If the pre and post video answers are different when grouped to our identified grouping in section 2, the answers might suggest the need for education before we implement a new kind of renewable energy, especially for MFC when it requires engineered microorganisms. The differences might also be due to the fact that there are views to the issues that they did not consider.

  • The final question on the actual type of energy should tell us which kind of energy would the public prefer and, therefore, allow us to estimate how acceptable is using MFC as one of the energy source in Hong Kong.

Analysis of survey findings

To facilitate data analysis, choices of concerns provided in part 1 and part 2 of our survey was grouped into the following categories:

  • 1. Environmental damage (eg. release of toxic chemicals, disposal of parts, etc)
  • 2. Impacts on human health (low frequency waves due to turbines)
  • 3. Production constraints (limited power supply, weather dependent)
  • 4. Cost to society (Ethical issues on land and crop usage)

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows a stacked bar chart comparing the total average points of importance that the general public of different age group gave when considering each category of concerns when choosing renewable energy. The brown toned stacks show grouped data of answers before the video while the green toned stacks summarized data after our team’s introduction video.

In general, all 4 areas of concerns shows differences before and after the video with ‘health impacts’ and ‘production constraints’ showing an increase in importance under the public’s perception, while the ‘environmental damage’ and ‘social cost’ show a decrease in importance. Since the function of our video in between the parts are aimed to educate the viewers about different types of renewable energies, it suggests that these differences can be influenced by education outside classes, implying that there can be a significant shift in society's concerns and interests in certain renewable energy source when they are exposed to the new or updated information about renewable energy and, therefore, show that there is a need for public education in this area. However, there are also possibilities that these differences are purely due to the fact that there are views to the issues that the public did not originally consider.

Figure 2

Factors in Fig. 2 are grouped according to the following:

Environmental Damage
  • Environmental pollutants
  • Visual Impact
  • Pollution Caused by parts
Impacts on human health
  • Effects on human health
Product Constraints
  • Low Energy Production
  • Weather Dependent
  • Difficult energy storage
  • Thick solar panel
  • Requirement of wind power
  • Large area used by generator
Social Cost
  • Ethical issue on crop usage
  • Ethical issue on land usage
  • Maintenance cost

When expanding the different limitations each renewable energy poses, Fig.2 shows that impacts on human health are still considered the most important when choosing renewable energy. Impacts on human health that renewable energy might potentially cause are the low-frequency waves caused by the wind turbines in wind farms or the toxic and carcinogenic chemicals released during the manufacturing processes. This shows that impacts on human health should be our top priority when modifying our MFC.

Production constraints are the second most important category after we have shown the video. However, the only factor that can be related to our MFC is the low production yield which we think is beyond the scope in which we can improve during the time span of this iGEM season. As a result, the next focus on our MFC moderation will be on the possible pollutants that the MFC might produce during its electricity generation. We have identified that CO2 is the only greenhouse gas pollutant that will be released from our system. The modification of this will be discussed in the integrated human practices section of this project.

Amongst all the other choices, the social cost including the ethical issues on crop usage and land use seems to be relatively less important as Hong Kong have alternatives to these issues such as using kitchen waste as energy source instead of growing new crops for bioenergy or using offshore wind farm as an alternative to wind farms on land. As a result, the scale of our MFC system can have more flexibility than what we have originally thought to be limited due to the limiting living space available in Hong Kong.

Summarizing all the valuable feedbacks from our potential users and the different aspects of our project, we have arrived to the following conclusion:

  1. Survey results indicated that concerns on human health and the production constraints are one of the highest concern in choosing a renewable energy type.
  2. To address one of the public's concern on the environmental pollutant, MFC system modification to reduce CO2 emission was considered by integrating insights from Prof. Bookhart.
  3. Further education on renewable energy may be required for the general public in Hong Kong before the implementation of a new renewable energy.