MSPES Activity Developers Page


1. Kit of Parts

Goal: Visitors will understand that synthetic biology is based on combining standardized biological parts to solve problems.

- Visitors would choose a potential problem to solve, such as creating a low cost drug for malaria, turning sugar into jet fuel, creating super strong and light textiles, or sensors for environmental toxins. This initial choice could generate conversation about what kinds of societal problems can be addressed with synthetic biology, and the reasons that visitors decide to tackle their problem of choice.
- A common analogy is that a cell is like a computer that can be built with different parts (memory, CPU, video card, etc.) based on what you want it to do. These biological parts are called "biobricks."
- In this activity, a graphic mat could represent an E. coli cell that will be engineered. Visitors choose from a set of labeled blocks representing different types of biobricks and assemble them inside the cell in order to generate the desired function. Possible biobricks could include:
  • Safety - for biological containment
  • Signaling - for communicating between cells
  • Movement - for generating cell motility
  • Signal processing - for sensing or producing odors, light, etc.
  • Synthesis - multiple brick options for problem-specific chemical synthesis, like malaria drug or spider silk
  • Control - on/off switches
- The iGEM parts catalog has graphic icons for different biobricks that could be used as inspiration for visual labels.
- There could also be some blank eraseable bricks where visitors could create new bricks based on creating their own problem to solve.
- Potentially, you could add a level of complexity by making the bricks components of an electrical circuit, and no circuit could be complete without a safety brick in the mix. This would highlight the need for biological containment as an important element of synbio design.
- Note that this activity concept does NOT require the understanding that these biobricks are made from DNA or how DNA works. Ideally, this could be done without any knowledge of DNA, but rather using logic to put different parts together based on their function. Imagine it's like a visual computer programming language, rather than needing to string together 1s and 0s.
- Useful video references 1 and 2

[Comment from Larry B (included these in Lawrence Hall's back-up idea as well): Natalie noted this iGEM project in connection with this kind of activity http://2012.igem.org/Team:Wellesley_HCI/SynFlo, Megan said "I wonder if you could make the parts into a Rube Goldberg Machine type contraption." Natalie Kuldell: "a good visualization of this mix and matching functions would be awesome." David Sittenfeld: "Yes, I really like this. It is a foundational concept. And it builds upon the wildly successful Lego DNA kits that were built by Kathy Vandiver." Larry notes that the description of this activity matches most with the way that I have heard synbio folks talk about this concept, but that said, I see in the Woodrow Wilson guide (STIP_140909_CommunicatingSynthBio_v1r6.pdf) Fig 7, Page 21, that the "biobricks" terminology is a turn-off for the public. Just something to note. Not sure if it means we should not use it..]

1.29.2015 - prototype designs for Kit of Parts activity




2. Fantasies and Fears

Goal: Visitors will consider how science fiction offers a way to talk about our hopes and fears about biotechnology.

- Note: probably need to talk to someone who knows more about pop culture to find best connections, maybe Dan Grushkin at Genspace?
- The activity would include a set of story cards. Each card would describe a classic science fiction story, along with information about a biotech innovation that preceded/inspired it.
- Possible story cards could include:
  • Frankenstein/Galvanism
  • Jurassic Park/PCR
  • Blade Runner/genetic engineering
- Visitors choose a story card and learn about the story and the science.
- Visitors discuss how the story reflects something good about the science, as well as something scary about the science. They can repeat for as many cards as they like.
- Based on what they have learned about synthetic biology, visitors create (maybe draw?) their own synbio-inspired science fiction story, and discuss how it includes both exciting and scary aspects.
- The facilitator could close with talking about some biotech or other scientific innovations have been inspired by fiction, so it's important to imagine new stories.

[Comment from Larry B: In our research for the Provocative Questions exhibit, we found research suggesting that people use three kinds of warrants in making decisions and arguments about socio-scientific issues: personal experience, scientific evidence, and social values. It might be helpful to cue people to think about each of these kinds of warrants for questions related to this activity. Personal experience: have you or anyone you know benefited from or been harmed by a scientific innovation (could give some examples from the past). Scientific evidence could be descriptive of the kinds of capacities, benefits and risks associated with different innovations. Social values might focus around whether a person feels that the benefits of science and technology outweigh the risks, or whether they support a more precautionary approach. (I'm not saying you need to do this, just brainstorming some ideas that might be relevant.]


3. Quorum sensing

Goal: Visitors will observe a common synbio component in action and consider potential benefits and risks.

- Bacteria use a chemical system (quorum sensing) to coordinate activity (e.g. light production) based on population density. Scientists have extracted the genes of this system into a set of parts for synbio circuits.
- The Chow lab will be prototyping how to print and dry light production-capable E. coli on filter paper. They will coat the filter paper with a layer of a polymer to prevent contact with the bacteria.
- Visitors will paint a solution of the signal molecule onto the reverse side of the filter paper. Their design will seep through the paper and activate quorum sensing. The design could start glowing green in about 20 minutes.
- One application is to use engineered bacteria to clean up oil spills – with quorum sensing capability, they would start breakdown only at a certain population density. Why is that beneficial? What are the risks?