Thinking how our project will affect society and how our solution based on synthetic biology will be contemplated by citizens was a constant concern for our team. Throughout our project, we adopted a lean startup methodology, building our device and our scenario by successive iterations. We conducted a large survey about the use of synthetic biology to fight air pollution, which received more than 2 300 answers worldwide. We also met the French actors of the fight against air pollution, such as the French Ministry of the Environment, city agencies, scientists, medical professionals and associations. It allowed us to present and review our project, check our assumptions and integrate their feedback to our device. To show that we have now gathered a solid knowledge of the air pollution ecosystem, we have regrouped our findings in a socio-economic legal report. Finally, we participated in a conference with scientific experts in the field of air pollution to present and validate our chosen targets, Poly aromatic hydrocarbons and particulate matter.
Acquire a very precise knowledge of the French ecosystem of the fight against the pollution of the air
Understand the components of air pollution
Integrate feedback from different actors into the design of our device
See how our device could fit into this ecosystem
Check the acceptability of our device by the general public
Elaboration of a questionnaire to know how air pollution is perceived and potential solutions for it contemplated by citizens
Interview of the main institutional players in the fight against pollution
Gathering data for our product design
Attend scientific conference on Atmospheric Sciences and Air quality
Socio-economic analysis of the data
We wrote a report on the political, economic, social and legal issues of air pollution.
Our study of air pollution and synthetic biology perception received more than 2300 answers.
We identified a problem of lack of information about indoor air pollution.
We got valuable information for the design and the scenario of aether: Relevance of the chosen targets ; Relevance of a local approach, initiated by a beta test, and the development of a database on indoor pollution.
Obtained confirmation of the molecular targets for our project: Poly Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
A handshake with our President
All these opportunities to learn about air pollution and get feedback from experts of various fields nourished a constant reassessment of our project. Aether wouldn’t be the same without the people we met.
A global questionnaire
How is the air pollution issue perceived by citizens, and what potential solutions could be considered?
We conceived a survey in order to grasp the public’s knowledge about air pollution, and the use of synthetic biology to fight air pollution, for which we received more than 2 300 responses worldwide. We obtained 1 874 answers from Europe, 213 from Asia, 97 from North America, 71 from Africa, 24 from South America and 9 from Oceania.
The aim was to better understand the expectations of people regarding air pollution, and if the idea of using synthetic biology as a solution was well perceived and accepted. Another purpose for this survey, was to teach people and sensitize them on the subjects of synthetic biology and air pollution.
- Design of survey
We separated the questionnaire into three sections: the first part collected information about the participant's profile; the second asked the participant about his knowledge of the different pollutants and sources of air pollution and the impact, if there is one, of this disaster on their everyday life; measures that they take to protect themselves or expectations on protection from it by authorities; the third part focused on synthetic biology, its perception by the general public, and its potential usefulness to find a solution based on this field of biology.
- Spread of the survey
We used the following method to spread the questionnaire around the world:
We began by sharing the questionnaire on social networks (Facebook, Twitter), but we soon realized that this method would be insufficient to obtain broader representative results from our own social perimeter: friends and similarly trained science students. Indeed, after 500 responses, 90% were from people between 18 to 26 years old, in Europe.
Therefore, we changed our approach. We contacted French embassies in 40 countries around the world, and several of them (including Russia, Japan, Canada, US, New Zealand, etc.) shared our questionnaire on their social networks. We also spread the questionnaire through the alumni networks of our Universities. Finally, we distributed the questionnaire in several companies through our friends abroad and our families.
- Participants profile
We obtained the following profiles for our participants:
- Overview of the answers on a global scale
You may click on the questions to get a better look at the maps
As we can see, most of the people are aware to be exposed to air pollution in their home. But only about 14% of them are actually protect themselves against this plague (excepted in Asia where most of the people use protections, either it being masks or air purifiers). In this global study, we realized that there was a real need for our device and that people all over the world (especially in Asia and Africa), were interested in a solution using synthetic biology. However, 57% of respondents who were interested in a solution based on synthetic biology thought it is not a safe science. We wanted to better understand the point of view of these people, so we asked a series of more in-depth questions on the subject, which we analyzed at the European level.
- Collaborative Design of a representative sample in partnership with UChile iGEM Team
After numerous discussions with our partners from the UChile_OpenBio-CeBiB team, we concluded that our results had a problem of representativeness, particularly concerning the age range. But our survey had the advantage of having many participants. So, we decided to extract a subsample of our survey, that would be representative of the European population.
According to Eurostat, whose main responsibilities are to provide statistical information to the institutions of the European Union (EU) and to promote the harmonization of statistical methods across its member states, we had the following distribution of the European population in 2016.
We also found statistics about the number of College educated students by level, and found on the world bank group website that 38% of the European population is rural. Based on those information, we extracted the following subsample from our database:
- Sample results
Using our Europe representative subsample, we obtained the following results for our survey.
As we can see, the European society feels concerned by the problem of pollution. 77% of respondents think they are affected, and almost half feel very affected by the pollution, since they live in a polluted city. For indoor pollution, even though 43% of people think they are exposed to pollution in their home, more than half do not know if they are affected or think that pollution does not affect them at home.
This observation has strongly influenced our scenario and more particularly our desire to develop an application to raise awareness about the dangers of indoor pollution and create a database of pollutants so that people are aware of the dangers of this scourge.
Even though people are aware of the dangers of pollution, especially indoor pollution, most of them do not take measures to fight it. Most do not inquire, or inform themselves passively (TV, Radio). And only 13% of respondents really use protections against air pollution. We can interpret it as follows: pollution is a problem, but a second-area problem, which is not the priority of our fellow citizens at the individual level, which we can compare with the next question of the survey (How do you feel such an issue should be addressed?). Finally, we noted once again that a significant number of participants think that they will avoid air pollution by staying at home: a pedagogical work is therefore strongly necessary.
We asked the previous questions to see if the key concepts of our project were well known to the general public. As we have seen, most respondents think they know what are the fine particles (which we hear a lot about in the media). A large proportion (62%) also thinks they know what an endocrine disruptor is. This result is very high for such a technical term and contrasts with results from other continents, where on average 35% think they know what an endocrine disruptor is. This difference can be explained by the high-profile debates in the European Union on the banning of certain compounds suspected of being endocrine disruptors. After asking these questions, we gave a definition for these terms from a pedagogical perspective.
We gave the following definition for particulate matter: Atmospheric particulates are microscopic solid or liquid matter suspended in the Earth's atmosphere. It’s the deadliest form of air pollution due to their ability to penetrate deep into the lungs and blood stream unfiltered, causing permanent DNA mutations, heart attacks, and premature death. [Ref.]
We gave the following definition for endocrine disruptor: Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can interfere at a certain level with your endocrine (or hormone) systems. These disruptions can cause cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.[Ref.]
To conclude these questions about air pollution and its impact on our society, we asked two questions about the solution we are developing. Respondents were asked to rate their interest on a scale of 1 (not interested) to 5 (I'm really interested). With an average of 3.89 / 5, it seems that our device meets a strong interest. We also asked the participants which scale seems most effective for combating air pollution. A very large part of the participants thinks the fight against pollution must take place at a local and then global scale. These findings have influenced our scenario, which you can find here. Indeed, we imagined a scenario where global foundations or health organizations take care of aether financing. The product will than have a life cycle on a local scale, between the consumer’s house and the local collect center.
In the overall study, we found that most people were interested in a solution using synthetic biology but that more than half did not think this branch of biology was safe. We observed similar conclusions in our European subsample. We have therefore conducted our investigations further to better understand this finding and to raise awareness among people with limited knowledge. We asked questions to evaluate the knowledge of people regarding synthetic biology and see if they would accept a solution based on it.
As can be seen, a vast majority of respondents, more than 69%, do not know the term "synthetic biology", while on the contrary, 97% of respondents think they know what a "GMO". The word GMO, associated with several scandals including food, is connoted very negatively in Europe. Looking at the third graph, we can see that the majority of interviewees do not have any problem with GMOs and consider that they are a great technical tool to address certain issues linked to health, environment or energy. What annoys most respondents is the fact that this is a new science that we do not have enough perspective to judge the effects. They are also concerned that GMOs are released into the wild and have an unintended effect. We realized the importance of communicating around the safety of our device and the fact that we produce GMOs, but we do not take them out of the laboratory.
We gave the following definitions on Synthetic biology: “Synthetic biology is a field in biology where biological functions found in living systems of nature, are used as solutions to address technical issues in various areas such as health, environment, basic science or new energies.” And also explained about the production of GMO’s:”Researchers modify an organism, like a bacteria’s DNA, to give it new properties such as the ability to produce a medicine (synthesis of insulin), depollute, emit fluorescence or the ability to detect viruses.”
Further, :”GMO: A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. GMOs are used to produce many medications, genetically modified foods, to produce other goods and are widely used in scientific research.”
We then asked the participant what he thinks about synthetic biology based on what he knows or what he learnt from the definition. 73% of participants had a positive opinion while 6% had a negative opinion. This change can be interpreted in two ways: - Our definition, not very objective, biased the opinion of the participants; - Our definition allowed to associate a meaning to the word "synthetic biology" and thus reduced the fear of the unknown experienced by a large proportion of participants.
In order to improve the understanding of synthetic biology of the participant we gave him two examples of synthetic biology applications (two past iGEM projects).
Example 1: An example for the use of synthetic biology is iGEM Paris Bettencourt's 2015 project. They improved an Indian dish by adding vitamins and nutriments produced by living bacteria (originally obtained from the fermented food itself), to help spread those nutriments among Indian people. The bacteria are killed before the meal is consumed.
Example 2: Another application for synthetic biology is the use of genetically modified bacteria to bait and eliminate bee killing parasites.
In conclusion, this large questionnaire, which has received more than 2300 responses worldwide, has allowed us to better understand our subject, air pollution, and how a solution using synthetic biology would be received by the society. While most participants are interested in the potential of synthetic biology, many ask for safety guarantees. We identified a problem of lack of information about indoor air pollution. This questionnaire also confirmed the need for our solution and influenced our application scenario (we chose to act on a local/global scale and to add in our device an application to sensitize and inform the user about his air quality depending on features of his housing).
Meetings with institutional actors and experts in various fields
We also present the solution aether to a number of actors in the fight against pollution. We made them discover our solution based on synthetic biology and we benefited from their feedback to improve the design and scenario of our device. Thanks to these meetings, we truely improved our knowledge of the air pollution fight ecosystem.
- The international conference on Atmospheric Sciences and Application to Air Quality (ASAAQ)
This conference was initiated in Seoul in 1985. Since then, ASAAQ has been held in Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul, Seattle, Beijing, Taipei, Tsukuba, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Jinan, Seoul and Kobe. The ASAAQ Conference covers broad topics on atmospheric sciences from the observation, analysis, to the simulation of air quality on all scales (from urban to global), including emissions, transport, diffusion, chemistry, removal processes, impacts, and air quality management.
ASAAQ 14 took place in Strasbourg, France from the 29th to the 31st of May 2017, and fostered scientific discussions and exchange of information on the latest research and practical applications of atmospheric science and air quality issues. Three of our members attended the ASAAQ conference and presented the aether project to air pollution experts from around the world. After the conference, we were able to talk to researchers. Those conversations allowed us to confirm the relevance of targeting PAHs.
Breath Foundation The Breath Foundation aims to bring together all the actors involved at the national level in the fight against respiratory diseases. Its main mission is to encourage and support the development of research projects in the fight against respiratory diseases and their causes, thanks to funding from patrons and public generosity. We met the president of the foundation on July 5th. This meeting allowed us to receive expertise on pollutants and respiratory diseases. We also validate the relevance of our targets, and our choice to focus on indoor pollution. Finally, we got a feedback on the overall project.
- Skype meeting with Mr. Rémi Pampin, electrical engineer
This meeting allowed us to make a lot of progress on the design of our device. Indeed, we were looking for a technical means to achieve our goals of designing an affordable, simple device, modeled on a kit "Do it yourself". In addition to recommending us to learn about printed electronics, Mr. Pampin has given us valuable advice about the electronic design of our circuit.
Association Respire RESPIRE, National Association for the Preservation and Improvement of Air Quality, is an association of citizens, founded in February 2011, dedicated to the improvement of air quality. She specialized in understanding the issues related to air pollution in France and Europe, be they political, economic, social and health. It builds on existing scientific and public data as well as regulations to inform, communicate, develop technical tools and build advocacy. The 31st July, we met Sébastien Vray, the president of this association to discuss our project and better understand the issues of air pollution in France.
French Ministry of Environment On August 8th, 2017, we met Mr. Hubert Holin, in charge of air quality at the Ministry of the Environment. We introduced him to iGEM, our project, and the application scenario we envisioned. M. Holin comforted us in our idea of targeting indoor pollution. Indeed, he said that to clean the outside air, it is better to fight the sources than to propose a solution downstream. He also described the energy autonomy of our product as a great advantage for some emerging countries, where access to electricity is not always guaranteed. He told us that it would be interesting to have a first commercial phase (in the scenario, we considered rather a free distribution) on a smaller scale (10,000 copies for example). Such an approach would show the politicians that there is an appetite for the general public and that there is a real solution to the problem of indoor air pollution. By mapping the pollutants, we could also sound the alarm. Finally, Mr. Holin gave us valuable advice on how we could get funding for our project.
AIRPARIF is an organization responsible for monitoring the air quality in the Paris agglomeration. On August 11th, we met with Thomas Alcaraz, engineer at Airparif, who offered us the opportunity to become a member of the Airlab, a broad ecosystem with a network of actors in the fight against air pollution. It pushes the structures of Ile-de-France and develops employment and the economy around the fight against pollution.
- Meeting with Dr Nhân Pham Thi
The 31st August, we had the opportunity to meet with Dr Nhân Pham Thi, allergist and researcher at Pasteur Institute. We learned the following lessons from our interview.
Air pollution is a co-factor statistically proven to facilitate, worsen and accelerate the development of some diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer, asthma, or chronicle rhinitis. Studies have shown multiple correlations between being in contact with air pollution and diseases that implicate inflammatory response or cell multiplication. Those correlations are statistical, and it is nearly impossible to prove scientifically the real impact of pollution over health, as it is only a co-factor (even if some in vitro tests are made). But the idea that both outdoor and indoor pollution impacts on health is generally admitted. A significant step is the 2016 OMS report, which quantify and affirm the correlation between air pollution and risks for human health.
The problem with air pollution is that it’s very difficult to make legislation on it. We have to inform, educate and act for a real change. We then asked him about the recent European decision about endocrine disruptors (The EU didn’t set a maximum concentration for endocrine disruptors), Dr Nhân Pham Thi explained to us that this decision is sad and difficult at the same time. Because those pollutants are only co-factors, there is no “truth” about them. You cannot know the limit between setting a realistic level for health and overly restrain the industry. With air pollution, there is always this contradiction between the qualitative approach (everyone agrees that it’s a problem) and the quantitative one (find precise, reliable experiment that shows the real impact of pollution is nearly impossible and would cost a lot).
- City Hall of Paris
On September 11th, we presented our project to the City of Paris. Mrs. Caroline Daude, Transport Consultant, and Mr. Serge Orru, WWF France Advisor and Former Director, welcomed us to discuss our project. They were very interested in our project and in the fact that we are a multidisciplinary team. When we have our prototype, we will have to go back to City Hall, to discuss their support for the development of our project. Their remarks also helped us to develop our scenario. Together we discussed about how our product could integrate the Parisian ecosystem.
- 7th morning of the SEIQA college of experts" (Health Environment and Indoor Air Quality)
On October 26th, two of our team members, Azéline and Juliette, participated in the working morning of the HEIQA panel of experts. They attended a series of conferences on indoor air quality and could interact with allergy and health specialists and people working on the development of indoor air cleaners. This conference confirmed and backed a conclusion we had formed: there is still too little work and studies on indoor air while it is the most dangerous and toxic. Creating an indoor pollution database would be an excellent initiative. Azéline and Juliette then attended a conference on air purifiers with a presentation of the state of the art existing models. It turned out that systems that have the most chance of success in the future are those that do not consume energy (passive), that do not produce more pollutants after use, and that are not too expensive. Azéline and Juliette then had the opportunity to present our project aether, which received very good feedback.
Thus, we spent a lot of time outside the laboratory to meet all the actors of the French ecosystem of the fight against air pollution. We synthesized the results of our surveys with the general public and institutional actors in a major report presented below.
A study on the political, economic, social and legal issues of air pollution.
When we chose our topic in January 2017, we were in the middle of the French presidential campaign and many of the political platforms were mentioning the topic of pollution. One of the candidates had even directly targeted the endocrine-disruptors.
Once our subject was chosen and the project had begun, our law students, decided to make a report on air pollution and especially on how it affected our society in several aspects. Therefore, they decided to try to explain the political, economic, judicial and social issues when dealing with air pollution.
For this report, we have met with some major players in the French fight against air pollution such as associations but also people working for the French administration such as mayors’ and minister’s counselors (those meetings were described in the last paragraph).
With our project aether, we hope to give a technical solution against air pollution, but we think that technical means cannot do it all. We believe that each and every one should understand what are the main issues related to air pollution. Thus, we designed a report that you can read here:
The Particulate Matter Hunt
Finally, after our investigations and meetings, we returned to the general public to share our expertise on the issues of air pollution.
On September 16th, 2017, we organized an unseen event to raise awareness about the growing issue of air pollution and the stakes of our project. This event: a treasure hunt in the streets of Paris to educate and alert the participants in a fun way to the problem of air pollution and show them how synthetic biology could be a solution to fight this issue.
The hunt was organized as follows: at each stop, the players had to find a clue to solve a riddle, then they had to take part in an activity or a game around a specific theme, held at a booth. Completing a step allowed the participants to receive a clue to the location of the next stage. The main idea was to create an event accessible to a wide range of participants: adults, children, families and people with reduced mobility, to inform and educate the players in a fun way. At the end of the event, we drew lots among the people who solved the final puzzle. The winner was awarded a grand prize: a bike! (Sponsored by Bike in Paris)
The event was supported by several French institutions: The Ministry of the Environment, the Respire association, the Souffle Foundation, Bike in Paris, the Journal des Grandes Ecoles a University newspapers, the Pasteur Institute and the Paris City Hall. The Ministry of the Environment even highlighted our event on their website
The game was a great success as 108 people registered and nearly 95 participated in the treasure hunt. Like the rest of our project, the security of the players was our top priority. To do so, we filed a request to occupy public space, with the Paris City Hall and the Paris police headquarters. On account of our route passing through famous spots such as Notre Dame de Paris, the Pantheon, the Senate, Boulevard Saint-Michel ... Also at each step of the hunt, there was a safety officer that could immediately inform the police if any accident occurred.
In addition, this event received the congratulations of the Mayor of Paris, who said on Twitter: "Congratulations to the team of the @ iGEM_Pasteur for this educational and fun action on the #Pollution of the air" and was featured in several national newspapers: Le Parisien and 20 Minutes.
This innovative event allowed us to establish a dialogue outside the laboratory. Its playful nature made it possible to start a dialogue and debate openly without any barriers, and discuss in an original way around our synthetic biology project. We also sent a questionnaire to all participants after the game. The results of the 43 responses are presented below.
As we can see, 93% of the participants thought the Hunt for particulate matter, allowed them to discover synthetic biology and learn more about air pollution. All the players appreciated the idea of participating in a treasure hunt to discover a scientific topic. We also asked other questions about our device and took into account the answers while designing our product.
We also asked the following question: From what price would you say this product is too expensive? The average of the answers was 81 €.
Finally, we asked a more technical question about using our Aether product: The filters do not have an unlimited life, we consider the following charging system: The user will receive a notification on his phone indicating that it is necessary to change his filter. He will then replace the old filter with a new filter, and send the used filter to a collection center where it will be analyzed and upgraded. Envelopes specially designed for this purpose will be included in the kit "Aether". From what lifespan of the filter do you consider the charging system as a constraint?
Meetings with enterprises
BIOTechno Forum Réseau BIOTechno is a french network and a unique organization in Europe, uniting 12 doctoral students and PhDs associations of Biotechnology spread over the whole country. The aim of the events “Forum BIOtechno 2017” organized on June 16th was to enable PhD students to highlight their transferable skills from Academia to industry. We took advantage from this opportunity to present our project to biotechnology experts. It was also a great opportunity to train ourselves to pitch the project.
Vivatech forum VivaTech is the world’s rendezvous for startups and leaders to celebrate innovation together. It’s a gathering of the world’s brightest minds, talents, and products. On June 17th, we had the opportunity to present our project to several enterprises, get feedback and discuss about potential partnership.
To conclude, during these past 10 months we really tried to communicate with the public and experts around our project, synthetic biology and air pollution. We did our utmost to reach the widest audience in order to see how our project affects society and integrate our conversations with stakeholders in the design of our product. We took advantage of every opportunity to integrate feedback and publicize our project, whether it was through a Particulate matter scavenger hunt, a questionnaire, meetings ... or even by giving a flyer of our project to President of France, Emmanuel Macron, who unfortunately was too busy to answer our questions for the law report.