On the weekend that English ferry ports ground to a halt, and travellers faced 14-hour delays, members of the iGEM Cambridge-JIC team defied these odds to reach Paris in the name of science. Rather, in the name of NightScience, an annual conference hosted by the CRI (Center de Recherches Interdisciplinaires) at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industries which brought together synthetic biologists and innovative thinkers from around the world for two days of fascinating talks and workshops.
The event follows the philosophy of Night Science from the French biologist François Jacob, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his joint discovery of transcriptional regulation of enzyme level expression by the lac operon in E.coli. He proposed the concept of Night Science in his 1988 memoir “The Statue Within”, writing:
“Science has in fact two aspects. Day science involves reasoning as articulated as gears, results that have the strength of certainty…
Night Science, on the contrary, wanders in the dark. It hesitates, stumbles, falls. Questioning everything... Nothing guarantees its successes, its ability to survive the tests of logic and experiments, but sometimes thanks to intuition, instinct and the will to discover, as a lightning it illuminates more than a thousand suns…”.
Given the opportunity to present our project at the conference along with this year’s Paris Bettencourt iGEM team, the resonance of this idea with the iGEM philosophy and experimental process was clear (though we can only hope our project “illuminates” the plant science community with the light of at least a few suns). It also applied to the projects of many participants we met during the conference from interdisciplinary labs, such as the CRI and the Waag Society in Amsterdam, and the Bio Makespace community.
We were inspired by the DIY hacking culture of this community and wanted to lend our support through the engineering side of our project. By developing low-cost open source hardware for the transformation and growth of plant tissue samples, we hope to equip the DIY Bio community with the tools it needs to increase the use of plant chassis. Attracting people from a diverse range of backgrounds, the Makespace community is a promising way to improve the interaction of non-scientists with the field of plant synthetic biology.
Since our return to Cambridge, we have continued the design of a growth facility and gene gun. Several of our team members are also in the process of establishing Cambridge’s first Bio Makespace, which we hope to support as a team with the hardware we are developing and outreach activities later this summer.
Biomakespace is an initiative of synthetic biology scientists, students and enthusiasts in Cambridge who are working hard to build a new community laboratory. We aim to have a friendly sharing space where scientists could meet engineers, physicists, computer scientists, medics and other professionals but even public, students and schools. They all could start working together on synthetic biology projects from this academic year already. The iGEM team got involved with establishing of the space, planning and propagation from the very beginning.
A few of us are planning to share with other students what we have learned from synthetic biology over the summer by leading or participating projects based on cell-free systems there in the coming academic year under the flag of the new student-led Cambridge University Synthetic Biology Society
Emerging Biomakespace and similar community labs have also hugely motivated us for our hardware sub-projects as Biomakespace hasn’t initially considered working on plants and algae or their chloroplasts much. By offering our affordable hardware to them and similar community labs over the world we will facilitate further development of plant and algal synthetic biology and also work on chloroplasts. As an example biolistics is the only reliable way to transform chloroplasts of plants or algae. However costs of commercial gene guns are absolutely beyond what such labs can usually afford. We are offering a cheap and tested alternative opening a whole new range of possible projects for them.
Official aims of Biomakespace:
- Bring together biologists, engineers, technologists and others in the Cambridge area for meeting, co-working and socialising in a creative, cross-disciplinary, community-driven and safe environment.
- Provide a well-equipped space for practical biology and engineering of biology on a community membership basis.
- Support new and existing interdisciplinary collaborations for engineering biology, with a focus on promoting open technology and innovation.
- Raise awareness, understanding and participation in biology and engineering of biology in the Cambridge area through public engagement activities, education and training.
- Foster links with local industry and innovation organisations, building bridges between academia and bioenterprise.
Understanding the bottlenecks of plant synthetic biology and best practices for open science
Hosted at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, the OpenPlant Forum presented talks from some of the most exciting innovations and research developing in plant synthetic biology at this moment. The three-day event also featured panel discussions on predominant issues in this field, including a discussion on “Commercial opportunities and bottlenecks in the future of plant synthetic biology”, featuring the inventor of BioBricks and ‘godfather’ of synthetic biology, Tom Knight.
This discussion raised the need for creating more efficient techniques for engineering plants into chassis for commercial production of biofuels and pharmaceuticals. This is something which we already aim to achieve as part of our project, through a standardised cas9 system for chloroplast engineering, which follows the phytobrick common syntax. Other relevant challenges were also raised in the discussion on “Reprogramming Agriculture”, such as responsible research and public perception of plant synthetic biology. Members of our team took part in this talk, sharing our views with an audience of over 100 people and making the key point that scientists have a responsibility to document their research and methods thoroughly. Mistrust and misunderstanding of what plant synthetic biology will be used for, and the ownership of this technology, is a result of miscommunication between the scientific and nonscientific communities.
The discussions highlighted the importance of DIY Bio Hackspaces, such as those we had encountered at the Bio NightScience event in Paris. By allowing ‘ordinary’ citizens to actively participate in synthetic biology projects for themselves, this helps to bridge the gap between the two communities and create a dialogue between them. This further encouraged our design of a low cost growth facility and gene gun for such spaces, as any techniques for plant engineering which industry hopes to commercialise must first be widely accepted in the public eye. Providing accessibility to these techniques for hackspaces, schools and other small community labs will, we hope, promote more widespread understanding and acceptance of them.
Furthermore, hearing Tobias Wenzel, founder of Docubricks, speak at the OpenPlant Forum gave us the idea to use this format as a template for the documentation of our open source designs. We hope that integrating the same best practices for open documentation used by this site into our own project will help to further support our efforts in removing the bottlenecks to chloroplast engineering, by changing public reaction and accessibility to the technology.
Synthetic Biology Society
Synthetic biology society is a group of students at the University of Cambridge aiming to bring together biologists, engineers, physicists, computer scientists and others to work in synthetic biology and share knowledge. It has been established by previous iGEM members in 2015. The society has ambitions to raise awareness about synthetic biology amongst students, broaden their knowledge through talks and as probably the only Cambridge science society it is actively working on primary research projects.
A few of our members got involved over the year with society’s activities and helped a bit with its beginnings and Lucie is on the current committee as the project manager. Last year’s project still in progress involves building a computer-navigated microscope moving in all three dimensions and scanning samples. Apart from continuing this we are planning a wetlab project in Biomakespace (have a link) which wants to explore cell-free systems. The project may change slightly but we want to make and tune a simple light oscillator (probably using fluorescent proteins fused to luciferase for sharper output changes) and also build a physical electric circuit imitating the biological system. From there we can study and demonstrate if the two systems behave and can be regulated similarly or differently, which may have a big educational value, we could also concentrate on transferring the system into a living organism or even some design using multiple oscillators. The emphasis in the project will be put on sharing skills, learning (even through seminars and trainings) and exploring what synthetic biology and scientific work in a team are all about!
Investigating perceptions of plant biotech
In June, we spent three days taking part in the CoLAB OpenPlant Cambridge workshop, held in the University Plant Sciences Department. We engaged in and led discussions about the ethics of synthetic biology during the workshop, involving participants from 10+ countries with a variety of backgrounds, including art & design, medicine, music and biological sciences. As a part of the workshop, we learnt about the different techniques of investigating public perception and understanding, such as providing unexpected physical stimuli in typical environments and observing people’s reactions.
This culminated in us conducting our own surveys on the streets of Cambridge on deliberately thought-provoking issues surrounding plant biotech, to establish a dialogue with the public about plant synthetic biology and understand the opinions already held about this area. Some of the issues we investigated included the ethics of plant experimentation, comparing this with animal testing and seeing if similar emotional responses could be generated from questions such as ‘Do plants feel pain?’
We also investigated how people felt about potential future applications of plant syn bio, such as enhancing the nutritional content of certain foods, or even using engineered plants to express a person’s complete nutritional requirements which could then be extracted and concentrated into a pill-a-day form.
Although many of our questions were purely hypothetical, the conversations they generated were eye opening for us in understanding the reasoning behind some objections to plant syn bio. Participating in the workshop at this early stage in our project ensured we considered the impact of our work on different communities, and the potential reactions to the technology that could stem from the project, throughout the entire iGEM process.