Innovating research, policy and education in synthetic and systems biology

Decoding and Designing: Out and about at Midlothian Science Festival

Alazne Dominguez (right, postdoc in Jamie Davies lab) and Cigdem Selli (left, postdoc at The Queen’s Medical Research Institute) came up with a clever, hands-on approach for building a dialogue around these technologies. Here they explain what happened.

During the Midlothian Science Festival we had the chance to engage 94 kids (aged 5 to 11) with the concepts of synthetic biology and bioinformatics through an activity titled: Decoding and Designing. Why? Because we felt that not enough effort had been devoted to explaining these relatively new fields, which remain largely unknown to the public. We wanted to show the simplicity of these apparently complicated concepts in a fun and educative way through interactive activities.

We attended two events within the festival: First, the ‘Science Alive Gala Day’ at Lasswade High School, Bonnyrigg and then the ‘Computer Festival’ at IKEA, Straiton.

First, we provided tips to the children to recreate a short DNA sequence using soft mega blocks of four different colours (representing the four nucleotides, ATCG). Then we asked them to guess what the sequence might encode. Clearly, this was impossible without bioinformatics tools to facilitate the reading of that text.

Once they could decode the DNA, we suggested that they start to design and build novel biological systems using synthetic biology. We described some real examples of useful synthetically produced products such as insulin. However we also raised awareness of the potential ethical issues such as intentional misuse (e.g. bioweapons) and perhaps unintended consequences (e.g. prohibitively expensive spider silk fabrics).

Finally, we encouraged kids to choose a synthetic biology application and build it, from a set of instructions, using the soft blocks. If the construction was correct, they were rewarded with a Polaroid picture. It was fascinating to realize that for most of the kids this was their first experience with those ‘magic pictures’ and the nostalgia in parents’ faces. 

To make a long story short, the experience was really fun and rewarding. Next time, please do come and join us!

Alazne Dominguez & Cigdem Selli