$300 synthetic biology class

A while ago I came across a new program in MIT’s school of continuing education. Apparently the field of synthetic biology is popular, if not mature, enough to deserve a star-studded cast of lecturers doing lab circuit with the class participants for five full days. I was at once enthusiastic about going (the class would have takne place during summer vacation), but then I was faced with the unpleasant reality of the price tag associated with the course. The five day synthetic biology course for MIT’s school of continuing education would set me back $3250, which is a little more than what I can afford on my meager college student budget. Now, don’t get me wrong. Considering the quality of the lecturers and the range of synthetic biology materials covered in the course the $3250 price tag is not high. I would even go as far as to say that it’s rather cheap for what it offers (chance to attend a leture and possibly even a lab session with George Church? Any molecular biologist worth his/her salt would practically drool over the idea). However, the quality of the course offered wouldn’t make $3250 appear out of thin air, as much as I hate the reality of it.

So I let loose a bit of idea on the twitter and the diybio mailing list on exploring the possibility of putting together a $300 diybio course. Mackenzie Cowell was enthusiastic about the whole idea, as well as host of other people. There were a few dissenting voices as well, debating the need for a physical diybio class when the course materials are usually freely available through the net. Other people argued on the fact that diybio class put together by bunch of disparate groups will never be able to catch up to the qualit and scope of the course offered by MIT. Both are valid points and I think I will take some time to refute those claims while I have the chance.

First, physical courseware is always preferrable to virtual courseware given the choice. While diybio shares many parts of its ideological and historical roots with diy/hackerspace movements that center around computer interfaces and mechanical hacking, diybio is not computer hacking. Computer hacking may be part of what diybio is, but at the core diybio is more about citizen/open sciences initiative rather than diy engineering. The maturity of the techniques and tools of synthetic biology and other fields of biology in general is still not at the stage where we can simply treat it as a subset of personal engineering. It all means that diybio must at heart center around real practice of physical experimentaion in order to be successful (barring the diybio-bioinformatics). Computer simulations can only simulate what we already know. Virtual coursewares scattered across all corners of the net, however helpful and detailed they might be will not be sufficient for the vast majority of the people who have a reason to diybio. If diybio is to become what it promises to be, there is an urgent need for a unified and accessible syllabus that ties the materials on the net into one structured and comprehensible package. And we need human instructors capable of answering the student’s questions and demonstrating the physical methods involved in doing diybio instead of forcing people to search all over the net for a video whenever some part of instruction is unclear.

Second, the proposed $300 diybio class idea is never meant to compete with the MIT class in any capacity. It would be preposterous to even consider that. As one member of the diybio nyc pointed out to me, the fully-pledged courses at the institutions like the MIT are not designed with simple injection of knowledge in mind. It’s about shaping the student into a general academic capable of asking the right kind of questions. If simple lab-routine and knowledge already present in textbooks were the point of higher level education then there would be no need for researchers to pursue PhD. They can simply train to be a lab technician. Such vigorous cultivation of invetigative mind is absolutely beyond the scope of the $300 diybio class and there’s absolutely no way that anyone would equate the one to the other in any capacity. The purspose of diybio class (if it ever come to pass) would be to introduce the general public with no experience in any lab techniques and biological sciences to the physical methods of doing those sciences. Maybe some people will use that skill to do something worthwhile, slowly building up to a real pursuit of science in the future. Maybe some others will use that knowledge to make glowing bacteria and wow people at parties. It’s entirely upto them and it’s not within the scope of the diybio class to consider such things.

The purpose of $300 diybio class would be clear and concise. It would be to introduce people with no experience in sciences to the basic gateway tools and methods of doing biological sciences through combination of lectures and lab exercises. Period.

I think this is a very viable idea, considering that many high schools are beginning to adopt some form of biotechnology course into their curriculums. As long as the materials and scope of the class are kept modest low-cost introductory class incorporating lecture and lab exercise is a reasonable goal.

So how exactly would we be able to put together a diybio class? What kind of materials and execises will it cover? Well it turns out that it’s a nastier problem then I first expected. The problem is the identity crisis of diybio. While the whole notion of diybio was popularized along with the advent of synthetic biology and iGEM competition in mainstream media, diybio is not genetic engineering. It’s not even synthetic biology (and yes, genetic engineering and synthetic biology are different). Making a diy gelbox or any other biology lab equipment is diybio. Using bioinformatics to research genus of certain organisms is diybio. Collecting samples of everyday objects and analyzing what kind of things live in cities of the world is also diybio. I might even go as far as to say that programming visualization routine for DNA sequence for use in visual musics comes very close to being part of diybio.

As Mackenzie Cowell put it, the field covered by the term diybio is positively nebulous. It would be crazy to attempt to cover all of that stuff in a $300 class designed by a diybio group. We will have to make a list of things that people can diy in relatively meaningful capacity within context of modern biology. And we will need to figure out a way to put it all together within a greater framework designed to instill in the participant feeling of fulfillment and familiarity with biological sciences.

I’ve considered many options on the must-have list of things for a diybio class, and I feel that the class would have to center round understanding and practice of diy synthetic biology. I believe that the basic tools and knowledge that would allow non-specialist to do a bit of synthetic biology would allow him or her to pursue other areas of diybio from building a personal gelbox to begin learing basic tools of bioinformatics, provided that the diybio class devotes some of the time to understanding and usage of appropriate computerized tools. Of course, even if the diybio class was to center around understanding synthetic biology we would still need to make people understand that synthetic biology is a very small part of diybio movement as a whole.

If the diybio class is to take a form of rudimentary synthetic biology class it would be important to try to integrate lab component as a large part of the overall course. It would allow diybio class to avoid any overly technical discussion unless the participants actively ask such questions, since the class assumes no prior knowledge or experience in biological sciences (nothing beyond the basic high school level biology that is). Focusing on introducing the participants to hands-on experiences related to synthetic biology would work to the benefit of instructors and studens alike within the limited time and resources of the diybio-synthetic biology course.

Introducing synthetic biology to the layman would necessarily involve introducing the concept of biobricks. I believe that it would be nearly impossible to introduce inexperienced population to actual hands-on experience of synthetic biology without the compartmentalization offered by the concept of biobricks. That will prove to be a problem. At the moment it is very difficult for any private organization to obtain biobricks due to possible safety issues, and it is very unlikely for the diybio class or its administration to be able to simply ask for biobricks from the BioBricks foundation itself. In case the class cannot obtain biobricks themselves, I’m thinking of introducing some sort of graphical language that demonstrates the workings of biobricks as well as integrating the whole thing into some sort of graphical computerized environment, in fashion of BioCAD. I’ve seen more than a few of such programs being proposed or demonstrated at the Synthetic Biology conference 4.0, and I think I might be able to find a suitable platform given some time for research. Such simulated study and demonstration of biobricks would be combined with a simple lab exercise introducing GFP plasmid into E.Coli or any other available chassis. It would prove to be a sort of gateway exercise for inexperienced people, allowing them to understand the rudimentary process behind introducing foreign plasmid into a cell chassis. While this is certainly a gross oversimplification of the techniques involved in fields of genetic engineering and synthetic biology, I believe it would be beneficial in introducing people to deeper study of biology once the class is over. Besides, obtaining cell chassis/GFP plasmid kit is much easier then obtaining biobrick parts.

Whether biobrick parts can be obtained physically or not, the diybio synthetic biology class would center around the study of the parts and how they can be put together with aid of computerized models. Maybe it would be better for the class instructor to choose a proven construct made from biobrick parts to pick apart along with the class. Ideally it would be one of iGEM projects that have been experimentally demonstrated, or even a minimal project put together by the instructor or the diybio community itself. The general flow of the class would be as follows.

A-synthetic biology primer
B-obtaining and using biobricks
C-obtaining and using cellular chassis
D-putting it all together using computational tools/measurement standards
E-wet lab session as an extension of D

*each section will have its own bit of lecture session introducing concept and theory behind the physical exercise.

In all scenerio the goal is to have the student capable of building simple circuits using biobricks using graphic aid and pre-made computational tools. Depending on circumstances the students would participate in an actual wet lab session utilizing biobricks, either their own project or a single project being demonstrated for the whole class.

Incidentally this is also the general structure taken by the MIT synthetic biology course, according to the website.

“Fundamental tools of synthetic biology include:

ready access to off-the-shelf standardized biological parts and devices;

a reliable and defined cellular chassis in which engineers can assemble and power DNA programs;

and computational tools as well as measurement standards that enable the ready integration of simpler systems into many-component functional systems.”

The general class structure at MIT’s course will be:

“Day 1: Biological engineering and synthetic biology, computer science and synthetic biology

Day 2: Engineering principles for parts and devices, measurement standards, redesign of cellular chassis;

Day 3: Principles of protein and pathway engineering, computational redesign of proteins;

Day 4: Optimization of microbial chemical factories, redesign of metabolic pathways, standards of practice

Day 5: Summary and future directions”

The MIT synthetic biology course will prove to be a useful tool in figuring out how the diybio synthetic biology class should be structured, though it must be mentioned that diybio class will have to keep things as simple as possible, and stay away from ambitious topics outside the experience of the instructor.

So for now I need to research following stuff for diybio synthetic biology class.

1.inquire about obtaining biobrick parts, possibly from universities in the area after the iGEM competetion.
2.research biobricks graphical language and computer tools, targeted at novices.
3.figure out basic logistics, like the place, precise time and date, and the duration ideal for completion of the class.
4.find a way to obtain a simple GFP plasmid kit (with chassis), necessary equipments and etc.
5.find a biobricks based project that can be picked apart for the duration of the class. Or maybe even design one, in wetlab or on paper.

All this is of course a pipe dream without the diybio-nyc gaining more of a logistical foothold and legal status. Regardless a lot can happen between now and November or December of this year, which is the projected time for the class.

I will try to update as I go along with the research for putting a class together.


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