Australians have reported a high level of optimism about the new field of synthetic biology. 

Synthetic biology involves applying engineering principles to modify and redesign biological systems and living organisms, and includes genetic engineering and gene editing.

In areas such as manufacturing, human health, agriculture and environmental conservation, synthetic biology could be used to manage invasive pest species to improve biodiversity, reduce pollution in waterways, or reduce mosquito-borne diseases.

Some of the technologies are highly controversial, but according to a new survey by CSIRO, Australians are broadly “hopeful”, “excited” and “curious” about the possibilities. 

CSIRO’s ‘National Baseline Survey of Attitudes Towards Synthetic Biology’ captured the views of 8,037 Australians to gain insight into community perspectives on future synthetic biology-based solutions.

It examined the support, perceived risks and trust people associated with these emerging technologies.

“We found that support for the development of these technologies as potential solutions for significant challenges was moderate to high overall, but support was also conditional on some unique issues for each case study,” CSIRO project lead Dr Aditi Mankad said.

One of the case studies examined how CSIRO is using synthetic biology to prevent mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

Synthetic biology could be used to remove or change genes so mosquitos can no longer carry a particular harmful virus.

Another example was CSIRO’s use of synthetic biology to clean up polluted waterways.

Bio engineered pseudo-organisms had the potential to detoxify contaminated waterways in a more targeted and thorough way.

“Overall, we found that support was highest when there was a public health imperative or an environmental benefit such as pollution management or conservation,” Dr Mankad said.

“Many participants were also keen to know more about the possible risks to humans, animals and the environment, and more about regulation and control of the technology.

“These findings have real implications for how synthetic biology technologies can be further developed with the views of Australians in mind, to address any potential public concerns, support sustainable industries, and realise meaningful impacts for the environment, society and the economy.”

The full reports and detailed case studies are accessible here.