Public Engagement

20-year-olds danced to get from cells to cities

Evaluating ethical and societal impacts in small groups

Open environment discussion for open synthetic biology

Implementing policy on our technologies

Computer games + the central dogma - what could go wrong?

We designed a computer game and built our own dance pad, which was featured at the high-profile London Science Museum’s Lates Series event. 2000 visitors transcribed DNA to mRNA through dance and played an arcade game to achieve translation of proteins. The goal was to teach people about the processes behind how in Barchitecture we can get from cells to cities. Here is the code on Github.

How could’ve we communicated synthetic biology better than through games? We aimed to inspire and make young people familiar with biological concepts. We started off with a prototype to create a live quorum sensing exercise. We hypothesized that if people take part in the same processes that bacteria undertake, a more intuitive understanding of the process would emerge.

The first sketches had people moving around using apps on their mobile phones to raise protein concentrations in various locations around London to produce phenotypes characteristic of bacteria. We even had the idea to have people become cellular automata that can behave according to only a few rules - an idea that we did explore in the context of communicating our project better through our GOLIT model.

With only a month on hand, we chose instead to create an installation to provide an intuitive understanding of the central dogma of molecular biology. We focused on this as it provides a good starting point for understanding how biology could be engineered.

The installation involves two participants ‘becoming’ E. Coli cells to provide an intuitive understanding of how DNA codes for proteins. We combined the DANCE DANCE Revolution game with transcription and an arcade game with translation. Conceptually, the first person performs transcription of DNA to mRNA, while the second participant does the translation into protein by catching the correct amino acids in the sequence with a tRNA.

In computer programming, initiatives such as the Logo programming language or the more recent Scratch enable children to think about the world around them differently and to express themselves through coding. Key to these projects is the idea of letting one create.

Similar to computer literacy, being able to ‘read and write bio’ will be one of the most valuable skills to have. Learning to learn in synthetic biology has its own quirks, given the messy nature of organic life forms. However, this should be the goal of future gamification initiatives in synthetic biology.

We encourage future iGEM teams to explore how they can communicate their projects better through games and how they can give people the chance to create. One potential area of interest, particularly for games, would be xenobiology. What new organism will you create next?

How 17-year olds want to make mules fertile

We facilitated discussion about the consequences of modifying organisms in synthetic biology with adolescents at the UCL Sutton Trust Biosciences Summer School. The session introduced synthetic biology, our biological light switches and their applications. The aim was to have students consider synthetic biology as a system, where changing one component will affect the others.

We started by asking students what their knowledge about the field is and then built upon this. For example, we highlighted the need for interdisciplinary work and then asked why that might be important. We discussed examples of how mathematical modelling can be combined with wet lab experiments and then entrepreneurship.

What worked well was having the students diverge and talk among themselves about given points and then converge back to share everyone’s opinion and then summarise conclusion or take-away points along the way. The most interesting example came in a discussion initiated by a student: ‘We should make mules fertile, as it can benefit agriculture’.

The most interesting example came in a discussion initiated by a student: ‘We should make mules fertile, as it can benefit agriculture’.

We went through 4 or 5 turns of diverging and converging to cover points such as:

  • what are the real-life trade-offs of modifying mules in an agricultural context?
  • if gene drives are used, what unwanted consequences can come along?
  • how should experimentation happen – behind closed doors or in a transparent manner?

What we hope to have had achieved was to give students a more holistic way of looking at ideas in synthetic biology. We encourage future teams to try and seek communication techniques from other fields that specialize in getting to the heart of problems, such as in management consulting.

Smart Dinner

Alex from EatOffTheMenu gets people together to talk about philosophy, the latest dumb thing presidents may have said or fashion. We pitched the idea of trying to get people from different backgrounds more comfortable talking about genetically engineering organisms.

Throughout the dinner, sensitive points were raised, such as the history of using and misusing genetics in and about humans; we talked about safety and what expectations people have from those who choose to engineer organisms or explore new such possibilities and what they think alternatives to what synthetic biology promises are.

Generally, people from all backgrounds emphasized transparency in researching synthetic biology, as well as the intentions of those who fund such initiatives. We had 2 engineers who rightly brought up the issues of standardisation and modularity, also explaining to the others with practical examples why these are necessary when developing real life applications.

We encourage future iGEM teams to consider such small scale events, through which people can interact in a more relaxed fashion. Events that would turn into a regular activity can definitely benefit an iGEM project or university, which can get local support from people interested in how synthetic biology develops and how it can impact their communities.