Team:SUIS Alpha Shanghai/HP/Silver

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Human Practice


The ethics of synthetic biology has been a controversial subject these years. As synthetic biologists focus more on the development of intricate systems, we often forget to consider whether the public approves such kind of investigations, leading to widespread concern. According to our survey, approximately 64.8% respondents lack understanding on genetically engineered microorganisms (GEMs) and 77% Chinese people have concerns about GEMs. Thus, we felt the necessity to increase public knowledge of synthetic biology. In order to combat this problem, our team first designed a survey and developed a WeChat platform, the most prevalent social media, to address some of the issue peoples have about Genetically Engineered Micro-organisms. We also interviewed an authority from Shanghai Xuhui City Management and Administrative Execution Bureau to seek more information about the scale of our targeted problem facing people in our local community and to learn of the government’s policies and protocols in place to combat the problem of illegal recycling of oil their attitudes towards using GEMs to decompose harmful substances in cooking oil.

Public Survey

In China, street food plays a significant role in Chinese culinary culture. The strangest and most delicious food is often hidden in narrow streets. Street food can always satisfy people’s taste buds without costing lots of money; however, it often looks unclean. From deep-fried dough sticks (youtiao), street crepes(jianbing), to stinky tofu, and fried dumplings, large amount of oil is used every day while many of the food vendors do not have any official commercial food retail license which may indicate the cooking oil used is not subject to quality control and may be unsafe. As food safety becomes a public concern, some people start to hesitate before diving into street food directly. And many of the new generation of Chinese are much more diligent when it comes to understanding the safety and quality of their food. But unfortunately, since street food is already rooted so much inside Chinese culture, most Chinese people either lack understanding on the harm of recycled oil or do not care much about it. Through the survey, our team aimed to hear the public’s voice on recycled oil as well as the use of Genetically Engineered Microorganisms to aid scientific research in various areas including the treatment of recycled cooking oil.

We interviewed a total of 441 Chinese residents from various age groups and educational levels and the result showed clearly that even though synthetic biology and genetically engineered microorganisms has been considered one of the potential future scientific fields by scientists from the world, This concept is relatively not well understood, or indeed not universally accepted, by the peoples we surveyed. Also, as we predicted prior to the survey, many Chinese people are unaware of the potential adverse health effects of reusing cooking oil, and are wholly unaware it may contain potential carcinogenic substances. Figure 1 shows people’s response to whether they know the risks associated with recycled oil. Only 4.08% of the respondents were fully aware that there might be risks, so our team felt the necessity to spread more knowledge on this issue through social media. If more and more people become aware of the dangerous side effects of recycled oil, it would possibly lead to a boycott of the illegal food business Or better still, result in more stringent policies and policing of the use of recycled oil.. But fortunately, people seldom reuse cooking oil at home for more than two times. Within two times, MDA will not yet be produced.

Figure 1

Whether the public is aware of the adverse effects of recycled oil

Figure 2

whether people reuse cooking oil at home

Through the survey, our team found out that regardless of age group, Chinese people considered food safety as a concern, a result that we had expected. Nowadays, food safety has become one of the hottest topic on the Internet and various media reported on suspicious restaurants as well as industries. When asked about whether they trust their local community’s food safety, especially regarding the quality of cooking oil, the responses spread out evenly, forming an approximately symmetrical bell-shape. Only 5.9% of the respondents said that they fully trust the oil quality and only 7.94% answered that they had no trust towards China’s oil quality. Most answers were clustered between, which showed that generally, Chinese people believed that there were safety issues but not that serious. In contrast, if we only focus on people with low education (less than a high school diploma), the distribution looks relatively different. About 31.11% of them said that they fully trust China’s food safety, much larger than that of the whole sample space.

Moving back to synthetic biology and GEMs, our survey showed that about half of Chinese people had heard of the concept and more than 76% had concerns about GEMs. Our team furthered investigated the main reasons why people were worried about this technology and their responses could be summarized into two categories. Most of the Chinese believed that this technology would potentially lead to health issues such as cancer and allergies. They were also worried that this technology might contaminate the non-GMO crops. To combat these misunderstandings, our team decided to post articles that demonstrated what synthetic biology really is and the ethics surrounding this issue through one of the most prevalent social media in China – WeChat. We hope that through our Wechat platform, we could reach out to even more people and spread basic knowledge of GEM and synthetic biology.


Our team interviewed an authority from the Shanghai Xuhui City Management and Administrative Execution Bureau in order to find out how the Chinese government manages the recycling of oil. He told us that in Shanghai, Waste Cooking Oils Recycling Administrative Department is responsible for the disposal, collection, and recycling of waste oils and fats and in related management activities in this municipality. All of the waste oils and fats have to be collected and recycled by 18 government monopoly units. In other words, all the registered restaurants need to hand in their waste cooking oils to the government in order to avoid some operators from reusing or trading the waste cooking oil in an illegal way. Then, all of the collected waste cooking oils will be sent to the processing facilities in Shanghai. The oils are refined and purified through distillation. The purified oils will be transported to the waste oil treatment plants in Shanghai where the purified oils are converted into biodiesel. The oversights of gutter oil can mainly be separated into three parts: government regulation, possessiveness of the industry and supervision by public.

Every registered restaurant needs to predict and declare the amount of the waste oil every year to the waste cooking oils recycling administrative department. At the end of the year, each restaurant needs to turn over the amount of the waste oil they have declared at the beginning of the year. If the restaurant fails to provide waste oil declaration form every year, the government will not issue them the catering operating license, and the urban management officers will involve in the investigation of the restaurant.

The waste oil treatment plants which are maintained the monopoly by the government provide benefit to the careering companies which turn in the waste oil. Therefore, in order to get the profit, every business unit will hand in the waste cooking oil voluntarily. To Citizens and media report on suspicious catering operators. Although the governments can make sure most of the registered restaurants do not trade or recycle their waste cooking oil, the supervisions and regulations cannot always reach to some unregistered small vendors. Therefore, it is awfully difficult to eradicate the illegal recycling of oil directly, but through increasing public knowledge on this matter, the problem is likely to be softened.

When we asked him his opinion on using genetically engineered microorganism to cleanse the reused oil, he told us that it could be a promising solution because the government and the industry are still constantly looking for more economically cost-effective treatment of waste oil. He believed that while our device is applicable, how to lower the cost to make it competitive in market is a question we need to consider if we want wide distribution of our product.

Wechat Platform

To respond to the main concerns of the public that are conducted through the survey, our team decided to develop a WeChat platform to post articles on these topics. We had already posted a brief introduction of iGEM and our team’s project as well as the danger of recycled oil and why genetically engineered microorganisms(GEMs) would not affect our health. We hope that through this platform, we can introduce more people to this concept and potentially invite more high school students to join the iGEM community. Also, when we see thought-provoking scientific articles, especially regarding food safety, we would also post them. Thus, even when the iGEM competition is over, we could still use this account to spread knowledge on food safety, GEMs, and synthetic biology. Our team hopes that our iGEM project would not only benefit us, but the public at the same time.

Our team is composed of a group of young and motivated students with helpful advisors from Shanghai United International School Wanyuan Campus. We all love synthetic biology. We aim to make a contribution for the society and improve the food safety issue.
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