Can’t wait to marry synthetic biology
Synthetic biology is incredible. We took every opportunity to teach others about it and our project. We have have hosted regular events to engage the public in our work, iGEM and synthetic biology. This year we had a stand at a number of open days, gave several talks, held an iGEM open evening and also held numerous workshops for younger boys at our school.
We had a stand at the two school open days at which we discussed synthetic biology and our project with prospective parents and students. We explored the potential of synthetic biology to engineer solutions to real world problems. With them we also explained what iGEM was, what our project was trying to achieve, and its practical applications.
Many people we spoke to were intrigued by our project, and its potential to benefit cancer patients. It was clear there are negative connotations around genetic modification and bacteria. However, we explained that our project - and iGEM projects more widely - are safe and that when proper safeguards are in place genetic modification can be harnessed to solve some of the world’s biggest problems - from climate change to curing cancer.
It was especially encouraging to see students interested by synthetic biology and our project. We explained it as simply as possible using an example of a light switch to explain toehold switches to younger students. For older students, we used the analogy of a knot to explain how a toehold switch works. We enjoyed engaging with the public and answering questions. It was a highly rewarding experience to be able share our project in this way.
iGEM Open Evening
We held an event at our school where all parents, sponsors, teachers and alumni were invited. We explained both our project and the wider world of synthetic biology in plain English. After presenting, there was a lively Q&A session - where we were delighted to answer further probing questions including some on implementation and ethics. Here are three of the questions and answers:
- Can it be extended to other diseases?
- Yes. We designed it around non-small cell lung cancer as purely a proof of concept as a system for measuring micro-RNA levels can act as a diagnostic tool. A final system would be testing for lots of different cancers and other diseases in parallel. We could do this by having several different colour fluorescent (glowing) proteins. For example, not just a green one but also red, orange, blue and purple ones. We could use light filters to analyse these results.
- What research have you done into integrating it into a healthcare framework?
- Our human practices team deals a lot with talking to experts in the field. We’ve spoken with NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), the government body responsible for improving the quality of health and social care through evidence-based policies. They’ve given us lots of helpful feedback which we took onboard while designing our sensors and figuring out how exactly the testing kit would work. For example, we are using a cell-free system - so there are no living bacteria in the actual test, just the toehold switches - so there is no DNA that could mutate. There’s an extremely long checklist for a diagnostic tool to be considered by the NHS and we’re currently evaluating our sensor to see if it matches these.
- What’s the normal function of microRNAs?
- They are involved in cell-to-cell communication and cell signaling, however it’s still unknown what precisely they do. Many of them are still being characterized and we see new papers coming out every day about this!
Video making session
We ran a video making session with Year 9 students. We made videos on synthetic biology to educate them about the basics of gene expression and about our project. We explained how synthetic biology can be used to solve real world problems, how transcription and translation worked and the mechanism of our project with the aid of a whiteboard full of diagrams.
The students were given the challenge of creating videos to explain some of the ideas. They decided to use time-lapse animations to explain the intricacies of their topics. We answered questions and discussed the issues throughout, but the videos were created wholly by the students. The well-drawn diagrams, accurately narrated explanations and creative ideas were testament to the effort the entire team put in to running the video-making sessions and the students’ enthusiasm.
Here's their final video:
Attribution: CLSB 3rd Form Students. Music: Nova by Alan Walker Ft. Ahrix, NoCopyrightSounds Release
To educate younger students about synthetic biology, a field few of them knew existed, we created models of DNA using sweets. Using them, we explained how restriction and ligation enzymes are used to insert genes into DNA. One of the younger boys in particular was inspired by our project and was adamant to set up an iGEM team for his year!
There was also an iGEM takeover of the school STEM society one week, where we explained our project and the basics of synthetic biology. We taught students micropipetting technique, and ran a challenge to refine their skills - ensuring the future of CLS iGEM remains bright!
We presented our project in a morning assembly to over 600 students. We explained the basics of synthetic biology, and did our best to explain how our project worked. It was challenging to explain toehold switches to younger years, when they hadn’t even learnt about RNA.
We used a ‘knot’ analogy to explain our project. Turning the abstract concept of a toehold switch into something physical, helped people grasp the biology behind our project.
To gauge students' understanding we distributed a quiz to everyone at the assembly. To our delight people understood most of our project and a few understood nearly everything - 109 completed the quiz and the majority scored over 75%.
To the question, “as best you can describe how toehold switches work” we received answers including (bear in mind the first is written by a 15 year old, with no prior exposure to synthetic biology, let alone toehold switches):
They prevent a ribosome from reading the messenger RNA but when the cancerous RNA come [sic] into contact with the toehold switch it breaks down the knot so they [sic] the ribosome can read the RNA.
The RNA strand binds to itself, producing a knot that prevents a ribosome from reading the RNA strand. When the micro-RNA binds to the RNA strand, the toehold switch is turned off, allowing it to be read by the ribosome. This then allows the thing the RNA codes for to be read
Abe, one of our student leaders, also delivered a talk on synthetic biology and our project to over 100 students from outside our school, aged between 17-25. Abe commented afterwards that “[he] was delighted that several people came and asked [him] questions afterwards. People seemed intrigued by synthetic biology’s potential to solve real world problems. [He] spoke with several people about their safety concerns and further explored synthetic biology’s practical applications.”
Inspiring others to take part in iGEM
Entering iGEM at all is daunting, but it is a massive challenge to enter for the first time. This was the second time CLSB has entered iGEM, and we were lucky that last year’s team members were able to give us pointers on where to start. Our PI also gained valuable experience on how to succeed in iGEM that he passed on to us.
This sort of advice is crucial to a successful iGEM project - and high schools entering for the first time won't usually have it. As such, we produced a guide for any high school wanting to enter iGEM. We explain the common problems and how they can be overcome, provide advice on everything from fundraising to lab work, including tips from a PI’s perspective. We hope that it inspires new high schools to take part in and succeed in the competition.
In the press
Abe wrote a blog about our project and we wrote a series of articles on iGEM, synthetic biology and our project that were featured in The Citizen, an award winning school newspaper. We aimed to explain difficult concepts to even the youngest members (age 10) of the school community.
We also submitted a summary of our project to several newspapers - and we were published on School House Magazine (please excuse the awful photo!). We were delighted that our project was published on a national website to increase awareness of our work (please note inaccuracy about costings - our current modeling suggests it will be ~£17 a test).
Through Adam’s tweets, Abe’s Facebook page and Joe’s meme-ing skills, our project was able to gain an internet presence, with several posts getting over 1,500 impressions. We also hope other iGEM teams enjoyed cringing at our memes as much as we enjoyed making them!