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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Teaching Synthetic Biology

Summertime is a busy time for synthetic biology. One of the core activities in this rapidly growing field is an annual undergraduate competition known as iGEM (the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition). For a 10-week period over the summer, teams of students work together to design, build and test biological systems using Standard Biological Parts (called ‘BioBricks’). The teams are highly interdisciplinary, usually involving engineers, biologists, and bioinformaticians. Over the past couple of years, sociologists and designers have also joined some of the teams — with some interesting and creative results (see e.g. http://www.echromi.com/).

iGEM teams come in many shapes and sizes, and different teams choose to structure their summers and their projects in different ways. One challenge that faces them all though, is how to share and make the most of the different skills the team members bring to the table. Synthetic biology is a new discipline that sits at the interface of biology, engineering and informatics. What skills should a good synthetic biologist have? For example, how much biology do engineers have to know in order to design a biological system? How much mathematical modelling should biologists know when assembling biological ‘circuits’ to display specific and robust properties.

These questions raise interesting challenges when it comes to teaching synthetic biology. How do you encourage a group of people with different expertise to find common ground and agree on a project? In early July, I spent a couple of days on a synthetic biology ‘crash course’ run for the Cambridge iGEM team. The Cambridge team have 2 weeks of lectures and practical classes at the beginning of the summer, to learn about key topics in synthetic biology before deciding on a project to pursue for the rest of the summer. To me, this seems like a great way to start building a common stock of knowledge from the outset, and to give students time to come to grips with some of the core concepts in synthetic biology before embarking on a specific project.

I’ve also been lucky enough to spend a few afternoons with the Edinburgh iGEM team this summer. Their approach has been less formal but no less interesting. Adopting a theme of ‘Bridges’ for their project, the Edinburgh students have spent a lot of time thinking about how to bridge disciplinary gaps, and teaching each other about some of the core concepts and vocabularies used in their respective disciplines. They’ve come up with some fun exercises to do this: for example, identifying specific words that mean different things in different disciplines or languages (did you know that electrophoresis translates as ‘electric swimming’ in Chinese?), investigating frequently used metaphors in genetics, and trying to develop consensus definitions for common words in synthetic biology.

Next year, I’ll be embarking on some teaching of my own in synthetic biology. Jane Calvert and I are developing a 10-week course, as part of a new MSc programme in systems & synthetic biology at Edinburgh University. The aim is to create a space for scientists and engineers in synthetic biology to explore some of the philosophical, legal, ethical and social dimensions of this discipline. It’s a bit of an experiment, but one that we’re looking forward to! Please feel free to get in touch with any suggestions or ideas about this venture, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

1 comment:

  1. wow! exactly the questions i was looking into. i have jsut got into a MRes course in synthetic biology and this is one daunting question that is hard to answer. i think electrical engineering, molecular biology, genetic engineering and mathematics should be core. i got this after going through pages and pages in openwetware and other sites.