“The cure for much of what ails our society is active citizen participation.”

- Laurence Overmire

Doing science should always be a democratic process. Since not only the scientific community is affected by the outcomes of our project but also the public, it is fundamental to communicate and address the raised concerns. Additionally, the public holds expertise in various domains, providing a fresh look at the project and the potential to offer novel, out-of-the-box solutions. PHAse Out aimed to educate, address concerns, and capture this feedback in our public engagement efforts. Via multiple avenues including a VR game, public lectures, and showings at events we tried to approach the public and gather opinions on fundamental scientific aspects of the science we use but also concretely for our project.

Virtual Reality game


Familiarize people with core concepts of molecular biology and the problems surrounding microplastics in a playful, fun, and engaging manner.


A Virtual Reality game containing scenes about plastic pollution, the central dogma of molecular biology and cloning.


An educational and fun experience with mutual learning.

VR game

We aimed to engage people in our project and incorporate various concepts in synthetic biology in a meaningful way. Key concepts in synthetic biology like the central dogma of molecular biology and cloning are quite complex, and they have been found difficult to communicate effectively with the public1. This presents a significant barrier in societal discussions about the opportunities synthetic biology provides2,3. To increase interest and lower these communication barriers, we created a Virtual Reality (VR) game. VR offers possibilities for an enjoyable middle ground between both education and entertainment, with complete immersion in the subject as one of the most distinct advantages of education using VR4-6. This enables us to make abstract concepts more tangible. Additionally, people all around the world can be targeted as the game is published online. To improve accessibility, the game is playable with both a VR headset and on any desktop or mobile device, removing the necessity to purchase additional costly equipment. We used CoSpaces Edu7 as software for making the game, which is a user-friendly online creation tool. We provide a guide on how to create a game using this software on our contribution page.

Within iGEM, VR has been utilized before by ADOPE (TU Delft 2018 team). Their game focuses on recreating a laboratory experience, including skills like pipetting. This is a great way to teach a new generation of scientists the first basics of lab work without actually doing it in real life, which is elaborated further on their wiki8. We decided to learn from and build upon their work by expanding the advantages of learning in VR to people outside the scientific community. Hence, we aimed for more of a storytelling experience with stimulating surroundings, accompanied by voice acting. We thought these alterations would improve the connection with a broader public.

The player follows the story of farmer François, confronted by new regulations concerning the fertilizers he uses, as explained in our project description. François hints to the player that he heard something about biodegradable plastic produced by microbes, but as this is not his expertise, he asks the player for help. The player is then transported to the world of cells, where a scientist and his friend Mex, a Methylobacterium extorquens, guide the player through visualizations of the central dogma of molecular biology and cloning. To improve scientific accuracy we included an accurate 3D model of the PhaC enzyme in the game9-11. Players can walk around the enzyme to see it’s intricacies. To ensure the conveyed message is received, we also incorporated small questionnaires, which, when answered incorrectly, provide more information to the player to complete the questions successfully. Additionally, based on concerns raised by participants of the NGL lecture, which is elaborated on further below on this page, we also incorporated a scene about safety where we touch on the work of our iGEM predecessors, DOPL LOCK (Leiden 2021 team). The game ends when the player has successfully made PHA and is transported back to François’ farm again.

The opening scene underwent drastic changes in the narrative as our project progressed through conversations with stakeholders. At first, we were focussed on plastic pollution in a broader context than microplastics. In this stage we designed our VR game to depict an island setting and show the impacts of ocean plastic on wildlife and the environment. However, our interviews with Thijs Bosker, Rinko de Koeijer and Rob Verhagen gave our project a new inspiration and direction. This led to the resdesigning of the opening scene from a plastic polluted island to a farm. We included the use of controlled release fertilizer and new regulations imposed by the EU.

Plastic polluted island

We hosted an event where participants could play the game and provide us with feedback on gameplay, intuitivity and clarity of the game. This enabled us to improve on those aspects. We added an extra level to the game, made alterations in the texts explaining the central dogma to make them more clear and understandable, and made adjustments to the visualization of the 'cutting' of the DNA for cloning.

We planned to use our VR game at a number of events and institutions in the Netherlands. We contacted the Museon-Omniversum, a popular scientific museum in The Hague, to test out our VR game. They were very enthusiastic, and after the wiki-freeze, we plan to visit them with our VR game. We look forward to showcasing our game at the jamboree!

VR showcasing event

Hortus Midsummer Night


Engage people in the world of microbes and inform them about our project.


Participation of attendees in collecting bacterial samples and streaking a plate.


Over a hundred people participated in our experiment with whom we engaged in conversation about our project and synthetic biology.

Our iGEM team had a stand at the midsummer night event of the botanical garden of Leiden University (Hortus Botanicus). During the evening we informed visitors about synthetic biology and the iGEM competition. For this purpose, we made three informative posters about iGEM in general, our project, and synthetic biology.

Collecting microbes in the Hortus

PHAse Out posters

    If the PDF does not show, click here to download the pdf!

We also invited visitors of all ages to participate in a small practical. We explained that in synthetic biology, we often use natural genes that are found in a multitude of different organisms, and we can use those genes in other organisms to improve them or give them new features. In order to keep discovering new genes, we need to find as many diverse microbes as possible, so we asked for their help in finding them.

We instructed people to find the spot they thought would contain the most diverse microbes in the Hortus. We provided them with a sterilized cotton swab and some PBS, and when they returned with the streaked swab, we gave them a plate to spread their sample on. The places sampled varied from various parts of the human body and spots in the bathroom to places in the dirt or on all the different species of plants the Hortus has, all with unique growth!

Plates results

Ultimately, over a hundred people engaged with us and participated in the practical. We followed up on all participants who consented by sending them an email with pictures of their plates after incubation and publishing all the results on our pre-wiki. All in all, it was a very fun evening with lots of enthusiastic participants and valuable interactions. We took away major lessons about how to integrate science into society, how to approach and discuss scientific topics with people from a non-scientific background and how it’s best done in a hands-on, interactive manner. We learned how to effectively communicate complex scientific concepts related to synthetic biology and the iGEM competition to a diverse audience, including visitors of all ages. We noticed that people were very excited about getting to do practical work and that this interaction really bridged the gap between science and them.

See the Hortus experiment protocol

    If the PDF does not show, click here to download the pdf!

NGL Lecture


Inform the public about synthetic biology and our project. In addition, we measured the influence of our lecture on attendees opinions on synthetic biology topics we discussed in the lecture.


A 75 minute long presentation accompanied by a PowerPoint and posters with two statements about synthetic biology. People could voice their opinion on a scale before and after our lecture.


We had 224 votes on our online questions and 32 votes on our physical posters. We incorporated concerns we gathered in our VR game.

The "Natuurwetenschappelijk Gezelschap Leiden" (or Natural Science Society of Leiden) is a scientific and cultural organization based in the city of Leiden, Netherlands. The society regularly organizes lectures that can be attended by anyone interested, both in person and online. We were delighted to give a lecture on synthetic biology and our project, PHAse Out.

In addition to our lecture, we took the opportunity to engage in a discussion with the attendees, and see how people thought about different aspects of synthetic biology. We consulted Anne Land on practices to approach this, which we incorporated into the design of the interaction.

We made posters of two statements, on which we invited people to voice their opinion on a scale with sticky notes. Attendees were asked to place a sticky note with a comment along the scale to indicate their opinion. We received 34 responses, which are shown in figure 1.

Fig. 1 | Results of the statement posters

An overview of thoughts people had in relation to synthetic biology is shown in figure 2. We learned that concerns are primarily related to a set of topics, as is visualized in the figure. These topics include long-term effects, human fallibility, circumstances, and solutions synthetic biology provides. The concerns about long-term effects specifically captured our attention, as we could imagine this topic to be a burning question among a broader public than just the attendees of the lecture. As this topic is the biggest hurdle on the way to adoption of GMO-based products, we included a scene in the VR game to highlight this. Here, we aimed to educate players on the current status of knowledge about the possible long-term effects of synthetic biology and the safety measures taken to ensure responsible research and development practices. The human fallibility concerns are more complicated to address as these are embedded in human nature and difficult to overcome. Government regulations aim to minimize the risk done by these kinds of error, but they will never be eradicated completely. The notions about the circumstantial use of synthetic biology include ideas to constrain the use of synthetic biology to, in this example, purely medical cases. With our project, we hope to demonstrate the work we did in terms of safety and integrated human practices, demonstrating that the use of synthetic biology in other contexts is ethical and beneficial to all living things.

Fig. 2 | Overview of responses to the statement posters

To also include the online attendees of the lecture, we made an online questionnaire that the audience could respond to. These results are shown in figures 3-6.

Fig. 3 | Wordweb of responses to the question: What do you associate with Synthetic Biology?
Figure 3: Translation

    Translated answers include: Artificial, synthesis/synthetic, genetic modification, unnatural, gene therapy, biomolecules, in vitro, beautiful, unhealthy, disease control, crop protection, biotechnology, chemical, crispr, fake, school, cosmetics, no idea, danger, learn, DNA, iGEM, plastic, man-made, fake meat, engineering, possibilities, art, labwork, ‘minibiocry’ possibly biomimicry, GMO, GFP, future, micro, not real, benefit, manufacturability, making a living organism, daring, laboratory, create cells or tissues, Frankenstein, Randy

Fig. 4 | Responses to statements on a scale from 1-5, where 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree. The waves associated to the scale indicate the distribution of the responses. "Synthetic Biology contributes to countering plastic pollution" (3 average, top). "Synthetic Biology will reduce natural diversity and ultimately lead to a world of organisms designed by humans" (2.4 average, middle). "Synthetic Biology will make natural evolution obsolete, humans will be the designers of future species" (1.9 average, bottom).

Fig. 5 | Responses to statements on a scale from 1-5, where 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree. The waves associated to the scale indicate the distribution of the responses. "Disposable plastics must be banned" (3.6 average, top). "We are obligated to protect nature against plastic pollution" (4.3 average, middle). "The presence of plastic in our body is concerning and should be addressed" (3.7 average, bottom).

Fig. 6 | Responses to statements on a scale from 1-5, where 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree. The waves associated to the scale indicate the distribution of the responses. Click here for the translation. (Top) Synthetic Biology contributes to countering plastic pollution (3 average). (Middle) Synthetic Biology will reduce natural diversity and ultimately lead to a world of organisms designed by humans (2.4 average). (Bottom) Synthetic Biology will make natural evolution obsolete, humans will be the designers of future species (1.9 average).



Inform and engage people about the process of our project.


Monthly newsletter received via email, people could sign up through QR codes on events we attended or links on socials.

We wrote newsletters people could subscribe to at events or on the website. Through these newsletters, we kept our readers up to date about our lab work, the subteam work, our human practices, and other interesting facts and information.

Read the PHAse Out Newsletter Volume 1:

Read the PHAse Out Newsletter Volume 2:

Read the PHAse Out Newsletter Volume 3:


It was a pleasure engaging with the public, being able to share our passion, and receiving constructive feedback. Voiced concerns regarding safety and implementation of our project helped shape our project and ultimately led to a better product.

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  2. Stemerding D, Van Est R. Geen debat zonder publiek Het opkomende debat over synthetische biologie ontleed.
  3. Stemerding D, Rerimassie V. Discourses on Synthetic Biology in Europe. Accessed October 11, 2023.
  4. Lege R, Bonner E. Virtual reality in education: The promise, progress, and challenge. The JALT CALL Journal. 2020;16(3):167-180. doi:10.29140/JALTCALL.V16N3.388
  5. Bibic L, Druskis J, Walpole S, Angulo J, Stokes L. Bug off Pain: An Educational Virtual Reality Game on Spider Venoms and Chronic Pain for Public Engagement. J Chem Educ. 2019;96(7):1486-1490. doi:10.1021/ACS.JCHEMED.8B00905/SUPPL_FILE/ED8B00905_SI_002.DOCX
  6. Marougkas A, Troussas C, Krouska A, Sgouropoulou C. How personalized and effective is immersive virtual reality in education? A systematic literature review for the last decade. Multimedia Tools and Applications 2023. Published online July 14, 2023:1-49. doi:10.1007/S11042-023-15986-7
  7. CoSpaces Edu for kid-friendly 3D creation and coding. Accessed October 11, 2023.
  8. iGEM 2018 TUDelft Public Engagement - Accessed October 11, 2023.
  9. AlphaFold Protein Structure Database. Accessed October 11, 2023.
  10. Jumper J, Evans R, Pritzel A, et al. Highly accurate protein structure prediction with AlphaFold. Nature 2021 596:7873. 2021;596(7873):583-589. doi:10.1038/s41586-021-03819-2
  11. Varadi M, Anyango S, Deshpande M, et al. AlphaFold Protein Structure Database: massively expanding the structural coverage of protein-sequence space with high-accuracy models. Nucleic Acids Res. 2022;50(D1):D439-D444. doi:10.1093/NAR/GKAB1061