I’m standing in a crowded arena full of posters at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. To my left, a poster titled, “BioLego: Toxin Cleaner” and a few more down, one called “Edible coli: The Untapped Food Resource of the Century” and another called “Artificial Gene Circuits for Screening Drugs Targeting FAS Pathway.” And get this: all of the presenters behind these posters are in high school. This is iGEM,the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition.
iGEM began in January 2003 with a month-long course during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) where students designed biological systems to make cells blink. The design course grew to a summer competition with 5 teams in 2004. Ten years later, it now hosts 245 teams from 32 counties. Now a non-profit organization, iGEM does work that seeks to inspire future synthetic biologists by organizing and operating competitions in synthetic biology.
For this competition, university students strive to solve real-world challenges by designing, building, testing, and characterizing genetically engineered biological systems with standard, interchangeable parts called BioBricks. Each team is given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the competition season. Teams use these parts and new parts from their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells. They then showcase their work at the iGEM conference.
Looking at these posters alone, it struck me how much room there is for invention and innovation within the field (e.g. if we can engineer gene circuits, then what about chromosomes and neurons?). And yet it also became very clear why synthetic biology is currently wrought with controversy and challenges.
Challenges of synthetic biology
Before we move on, let’s discuss what the field actually entails. Synthetic biology is most simply defined as the “engineering of biology” (Kuiken & Pauwels), though it borrows from many other disciplines including genetics, molecular biology, information technology, and nanotechnology. The focus of synthetic biology research is usually “to design and construct novel artificial biological pathways, organisms, devices, or systems and to redesign existing natural biological systems to achieve new functions” (Kuiken & Pauwels). Some of the leading research in synthetic biology includes nitrogen fixation in non-legumes to reduce applications of fertilizers; gene drives that spread through sexually reproducing populations (focused on mosquitoes); bioremediation; and more (Drinkwater, et al 8).
Due to the nature of synthetic biology research, social groups that normally embrace technological advance can have significant concerns about synthetic biology, especially around the moral and ethical implications of engineering living organisms (Kahan, Braman, & Mandel, 2009; Kahan et al., 2008). For instance, while some people may be comfortable with synthetic biology applications toward medicine, the same group might be uncomfortable with engineering food. The same research project might have varied effects on the same audience depending on how the message is framed. This poses a challenge for science communicators in representing synthetic biology to the public, and it puts the impetus on policymakers and funders to justify research agendas for it as well.
In a recent Wilson Center report called “Beyond the Laboratory and Far Away: Immediate and Future Challenges in Governing the Bio-Economy,” Todd Kuiken and Eleanore Pauwels point out how science communicators influence public perception of synthetic biology (2):
“The press may not tell the public what to think, but by covering topics it often tells them what to think about. A recent analysis of coverage of synthetic biology by the popular press over the past five years shows a significant increase in coverage in both the United States and the European Union.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Todd Kuiken adds, “This is not just a synthetic biology problem. It’s a larger science communication problem amongst the media. The sort of reduction in science depth…popular press and newspapers or even mainstream media outlets have hurt the overall ability to communicate science properly.”
In communicating synthetic biology research in media, one must keep in mind matters of audience, framing, balance, and definitions/applications in the message, among many other factors listed in the policy brief. This carries over to how we talk about citizen science efforts in biology and synthetic biology as well.
When it comes to DIYBio, the issue gets a little more complicated. Citizen science initiatives within the DIYBio and DIYSynBio space are emerging, but they have come against some public pushback due to the same issues noted above: “At the crux of these fears is a miscomprehension about the community’s ability to wield DNA and manipulate life” (Grushkin, Kuiken, Millet 2013). There is also public anxiety that opening up synthetic biology to the public in general, for example: that bioterrorists could exploit technology to threaten public safety (Grushkin, Kuiken, Millet 19).
However, community laboratories provide a space for exploring these research topics with safety protocol. Community labs like Genspace in Brooklyn, NY, and BioCurious in Sunnyvale, CA, provide courses and hands-on experience in the fields of biotechnology and synthetic biology. There, communities of students, parents, educators, artists, and many others engage in projects that look at biotechnology, robotics, neuroscience, barcoding, bioprinting, bioluminescence, and constantly more new initiatives.
“Discomfort comes from not understanding how community labs operate,” Kuiken says. “If you visit one and talk with them about how they go through their protocols, you’ll see something that’s like a typical undergraduate laboratory at a university.” Community labs often have their own safety protocol as internal review process for projects, which often includes peer feedback and critique. Kuiken believes that community labs are acting in a model way in terms of the protocol they put in place to monitor the projects being conducted inside the laboratories.
As the public discourse on synthetic biology and DIYbio initiatives like community labs co-evolve, more synbio projects without backing by formal, traditional institutions will also emerge. While this comes with its own legal and ethical implications that have yet to crystallize fully, it could also mean that there might be even more opportunities for citizen scientists to interact directly with these projects as well as pedagogical materials generated from them to open up the field of synthetic biology to newer audiences.
Read about another synbio citizen science project SynBio4All on Discover Magazine Citizen Science Salon.
Drinkwater, et al. “CREATING A RESEARCH AGENDA FOR THE ECOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS OF SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY.” Wilson Center. Policy Brief. May 2014.
Kahan, D. M., Slovic, P., Braman, D., Gastil, J., Cohen, G., & Kysar, D. (2008). Biased Assimilation, Polarization, and
Cultural Credibility: An Experimental Study of Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions. : Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law
School and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Program on Emerging Nanotechnologies.
Kuiken, Todd & Eleonore Pauwels. Beyond the Laboratory and Far Away: Immediate and Future Challenges in Governing the Bio-Economy. Wilson Center. Policy Brief. December 2012.
Mazerik, Jessica & David Rejeski. A Guide to Communicating Synthetic Biology. Wilson Center. Policy Brief. September 2014.
Grushkin, Daniel & Todd Kuiken & Piers Millet. Seven Myths & Realities about Do-It-Yourself Biology. Wilson Center. Policy Brief. November 2013.