BioBits: Low-cost education kits for molecular and synthetic biology

So usually, what I do in the lab is I grow a bunch of E. Coli and I give the E. Coli DNA and the E. Coli cells take the DNA and give me my protein back, but we don’t want to bring live bacteria like E.coli into classrooms. To engineer Biology, you need complicated equipment, you need fancy labs. And as a result, most middle schools, most high schools, and many colleges are not actually appropriately equipped in order to teach kids the basics of synthetic biology. You can imagine these schools are struggling with STEM funding already and now you’re asking them to basically have all the equipment they need for a BL1 lab and that includes things like freezers, refrigerators, incubators that shake. And one of the things we really set out to do in these bio-bits papers, both bio-bits bright, and bio-bits explorer is to kind of change that paradigm. We’re creating essentially low cost educational kits that could be used in a classroom setting for less than $100. What I did is I took all the machinery that we need to build the proteins, out of the cells, and put them into these little tubes. So, we can actually make proteins using these little pellets without having to grow E. Coli. Now at a high level what we’ve done is create the synthetic biology equivalent to the old chemistry kits. They’re inexpensive, easy to use, easy to store, can be conducted actually in more or less any room, and the nature of the kit is the idea that you can freeze dry cell-free extracts. And what that means is you rip off the cell wall and you collect the guts of the cell. You can kind of think about that like taking a car and you open the hood and you take the engine and you put it over here and so what we had have done is we’ve taken the engine out of a cell. Like the ribosomes, the amino acids, that kind of thing and put it into a separate solution and if we just add the DNA to that solution, transcription and translation will happen and you’ll get your protein output. So we’re going to add DNA to these little pellets and then we’re going to put them in our little warming incubator. So we have the BioBits bright kit, where we use these freeze-dried cell-free reactions to synthesize fluorescent proteins. And this allows educators to teach components such as the central dogma: DNA goes to MRNA goes to proteins. So for example in one of our labs, students take an eight-well strip of these freeze-dried cell-free reactions and by just adding different amounts of DNA, they show that they can synthesize different amounts of fluorescent proteins in our test tubes. In our second lab, we give students a 96-w ell plate of freeze-dried cell-free reactions and we then challenge them to build their own in vitro synthetic program, which in their case means painting a picture with these fluorescent protein reactions. They can make a rainbow, a periodic table, and that allows educators to start to talk about how synthetic biologists might control biology. So you guys made fluorescent proteins. Yay! While the bright kit focuses on expression of fluorescent proteins, the explorer kit introduces a number of new modules that go beyond just simple fluorescent protein expression. Showing that we can do other outputs as well, such as smells, tactile-based hydrogels, and the fruit sensors. You remember why we are adding the soap? To help break the cells. To bust open the cells. A really popular biology experiment that teachers do now is the fruit DNA extraction experiment. You basically mash up the fruit and you extract the DNA from it and that’s the end of the lesson right there, but with the cell-free sensors now, you can add on to that. It actually detect if something is a banana or something is a kiwi. You can really tell that is a banana. So the sensor could tell the difference between all these different fruits and all it’s always based on the DNA. That’s really cool. So for the tactile outputs, we have the students express enzymes and these enzymes are able to convert peptides into hydrogels. Woah, this is cool! For the smell-based outputs, we are able to express enzyme called ATF1 and ATF1 is able to convert Isoamyl alcohol into Isoamyl acetate which is another word for banana oil. That’s so cool. It smells like bananas. You know, our effort has been done in very tight collaboration with Northwestern University, Mike Jewett’s lab. Our team has included really talented grad students and postdocs from MIT and the Wyss institute. So from the outset, we engaged as many educators as we could both in the university level as well as outside. Mike Jewett’s team actually already has integrated and tested their kits in the Chicago school systems. We actually put these reactions into the hands of K12 teachers and students. Had them run them. They had never seen these reactions before. It was their first time running the experiments and we showed that they worked and that actually that their results were comparable to experiments that I set up. It’s often times those hands on opportunities where you really get to touch the science that can be transformative. I think that that’s what we hope these kids are. We want them to be open access. We want everyone to be able to engage in them. And it would be incredibly satisfying to see if we inspired a small number if not a large number of kids to consider careers in biomedical research as a result of these kits.

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