Synthetic Biology and standards in education

Synthetic biology is a research field that has been around for some time now, but that still isn’t included as a subject of its own in the curriculum of most biology-related undergraduate courses. This discipline requires specific educational approaches to inspire and train future synthetic biologists at the different educational levels. As described in a review article written by the coordinators of the MSc in Synthetic Biology at Newcastle University (UK), there are several key areas that must be assessed when educating synthetic biologists. First of all, the interdisciplinarity of synthetic biology requires for students to not only specialize in a certain field (which is usually the case in undergraduate courses), but to also acquire interdisciplinary communication and teamwork skills that will allow an efficient coordination with people specialized in other disciplines, including engineering, genetics, computer science and social sciences, among others. Secondly, it is essential that the notions of responsible research and innovation be incorporated into education at an early level, training the students to anticipate the impacts of their research, reflect on the purpose of their work and engage in dialogue and discussions in an inclusive way. Last but not least, it is crucial for students to understand the importance of using standards in synthetic biology. Standards facilitate communication between members of the scientific community and are necessary to ensure the reproducibility of experimental procedures. In fact, synthetic biology is considered an engineering field, with standardisation playing an important role in the design and implementation of complex systems.

In this sense, students must learn both the basic notions associated to the use of standards, while becoming familiar with the many community-accepted standard databases, tools and initiatives that are already available within the scientific community, such as:

One of the most notable efforts in the education of standards in synthetic biology is the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition and its Registry of Standard Biological Parts. iGEM is a worldwide synthetic biology competition that takes place every year in Boston and gathers students from different educational levels, including high school students, undergraduates and overgraduates. These students are required to work in teams focusing on every single aspect of a synthetic biology project, from the proposal preparation and experimental design, to the presentation of results before a committee. Furthermore, all these projects must use the genetic parts (DNA, plasmids, plasmid backbones, promoters primers, riboregulators, etc.) available at the iGEM Parts Registry, a growing collection of genetic parts that can be mixed and matched to build synthetic biology devices and systems, providing a source of genetic parts to iGEM teams and academic labs. The Registry conforms to the BioBrickTM standard, a standard for interchangeable parts developed in a way that endless numbers of parts can be assembled to build complex biological devices in living systems through a process known as the ‘BioBrick Standard Assembly’.

As previously mentioned, the earlier these concepts are introduced into education, the better. Nevertheless, the difficulties associated to performing hands-on experiments in school classrooms (i.e. concerns about the biocontainment of recombinant microorganisms, the need for specialized equipment and instruments, sterile conditions and sterilization techniques, etc.) require more creative approaches to introduce synthetic biology into the educational program. One alternative is the use of cell-free systems, as the ones used in BioBitsTM Explorer, a modular synthetic biology education kit based on shelf-stable, freeze-dried, cell-free (FD-CF) reactions that generate outputs such as fluorescence, fragrances or hydrogels. This educational kit is easy to use, inexpensive, and can be used to teach concepts such as tunable protein expression, enzymatic reactions, or biosensors using RNA switches.

In line with this, one of the goals of BIOROBOOST is to create an educational kit that aims at transmitting, at a high school level (ages 14-16), the importance of using standards in biology and, more specifically, in synthetic biology. This will be done by designing and creating a user-friendly educational kit composed by three parts: (A) a handbook and other educational materials (power point presentation, evaluation sheets) in which a historical view of standardisation and its importance in science and society will be given; (B) a 2-minute-long animation, that will be a main asset for the promotion of standardisation; and (C) a simple and fun card game that will cover the following educational concepts: standards in synthetic biology, DNA modules and gene assembly, the central dogma in molecular biology, and the concept of chassis.

Text by: Kristie Tanner (Darwin Bioprospecting Excellence S.L.), April 2020

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