Recently I got to volunteer again at a “Building with Biology” event at the Museum of Science in Boston. Last year was the first event of its kind and now the program is spreading all over the country. The Building with Biology project has developed new resources and activities to engage and inform the public on synthetic biology. The NSF funded project is ramping up to include 200 sites nationwide that will each bring together scientists and the public to talk and learn from each other about synthetic biology. Last summer 8 museums held pilot events to test out the kits and guide the development of outreach resources.
As volunteer scientists, we got training on how to engage visitors on their interests or concerns with synthetic biology. I got to volunteer at the Museum of Science’s first event last year and this year was even more polished. Each activity table came with great instructions to guide the scientist and informative illustrations and examples for the museum visitors of all ages.
A “Build Bacteria for Mars” setup from the Wellesley 2015 iGEM team was especially impressive. They had modified their project for the museum focusing on the virtual biology happening on the interactive touch screen. Users moved physical parts, representing genetic parts, around and combined them on the board to help complete their Mars mission by converting resources into useful products. Your newly chosen plasmid gets inserted into bacteria using the screen’s graphics and you can learn more about the genes or try to optimize your production.
Upstairs at the Gordon Current Science and Technology Stage, four speakers engaged crowds on the current state of synthetic biology in terms of technology, safety, and industrial impact. Academic researchers from both MIT and Harvard talked about new research areas in synthetic biology. An FBI agent spoke on “Biosecurity and Synthetic Biology. He mentioned ongoing work of synthetic biology researchers like George Church to address security issues and answered questions on public safety and corporate espionage.
Later, Lily Fitzgerald, from the company Gingko Bioworks, addressed the industrial side of synthetic biology. Gingko Bioworks calls itself the organism company, and she discussed their work on automation to make their foundry capable of efficiently optimizing custom organisms for production of high value products like fragrances.
After a full afternoon of activities and talks there was a forum focused on the question “Should We Engineer the Mosquito?”. Andrea Smidler, a graduate student in George Church’s lab and co-holder of the ‘Rna-guided gene drives’ patent application, introduced gene drives to the mixed audience of museum visitors and scientist volunteers. She explained how gene drives bias inheritance and could be used to target species that transmit disease like mosquitos do for Dengue, Malaria, or Zika.
After she spoke, we split into tables to read more and discuss. Each group had information on the problem (Dengue in Mombasa), the technology (gene drives to later or eradicate the Aedes aegypti mosquito), and the stakeholders (local government, parents living with Dengue threat, health workers, researchers, etc.). Each table then got to decide on what policies they would recommend and at the end we compared the different conclusions that each table presented. As might be expected there were lots of different opinions on how cautious to be with the relatively new technology of gene drives. This is still a major policy issue to be solved in the coming years. See our post on Bill Gates discussing some of the same issues for more.
Building with Biology has a great set of activities to help teach and discuss synthetic biology with people from all backgrounds, but it’s really dependent on volunteers to make it happen. This year we had lots of volunteers from the Boston area but especially from the Boston University iGEM team. I’d encourage everyone interested in synthetic biology to either volunteer at or visit an event.
If you’re a U.S. graduate student, professor, scientist, industry professional or other member of the synthetic biology community you should fill out their expression of interest form to find out how you can get involved in your area.