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UCL iGEM 2016 | BioSynthAge


Our motivation

Even if Biosynthage were able to clinically validate that our therapies are safe to administer to humans and greatly increase healthy human lifespan, we are still not able to implement them into today’s society. This is because the public would need to realise that worsening of health during ageing is a problem that requires synthetic biology intervention. To do this, Biosynthage needed to change the way people think about healthy ageing through interacting with as many people as we could. Changing opinions and points of views is the best way to increase our impact at making people realise the magnitude of the ageing problem. Since ageing is a global issue, we wanted to incorporate the views of the diverse population. Below, are the details of what Biosynthage are doing to increase the awareness of synthetic biology, healthy ageing and iGEM!


International Survey

So far, our project has been greatly shaped by the public. We are all stakeholders of ageing as we are all effected by it hence why we wanted to find out what the global population thought about our ideas. We thought that a survey would be the best way to easily reach a large, diverse population. This way, we were even able to reach out to people from all around the world without even travelling there. In fact, our survey was filled out by 218 people from 30 different countries in 4 out of 7 continents! As well as this, we were also able to translate our survey into Mandarin and distribute the survey through our Wechat account acquiring over 120 responses alone from this survey. This then adds up to 348 total international and national participants that took our survey.

The survey also gathered information on the gender, age, and their level of knowledge in synthetic biology. We felt that it was important to gather data that accurately represented the variety of knowledge in the general community and to see if these factors affect the outcome of the survey.

The results showed that 28.49% of the public know nothing about synthetic biology and 20.4% of this was from people who live in China and were aged 17-20 and 21-30 year olds. 21.2% of responders are not accepting of synthetic biology and think we are playing god. We have written about our exploration of religion, synthetic biology and our project on this page to understand this more. 76.7% of the general public also think that they have not been educated about synthetic biology and 81.2% of respondents also agreed that primary or secondary school should be educated about synthetic biology as a part of the curriculum. Based on the results, it is apparent that respondents felt like there hasn’t been sufficient education related to synthetic biology. Considering these results, we have decided to organise outreach programs for students and adults of different ages to expand their knowledge and consciousness of synthetic biology (see below for details).

More importantly, when we asked if the respondents wanted to live longer, fewer people answered yes then compared to when they were asked if they want to live healthier longer. This shows that our project is relevant to the needs of the general public as more would rather live healthier for longer than just live longer.


Activities for outreach

In response to the survey, we wanted to make synthetic biology and iGEM more accessible to the younger generation and raise awareness of synthetic biology in a fun way. So we decided that we wanted to make some resources for young children about our project, synthetic biology and ideas around synthetic biology. Our survey also highlighted that synthetic biology is less well known in other countries around the world. So we also have this document translated in English, German, French, Farsi, Spanish and Mandarin (do contact us for these versions!)

Click here to download

Outreach: Interactive workshops

How often do we make decisions that are based on or influenced by what the people around us think? Many people may not see ageing as a problem because of society seeing it as a normal process of life, however we believe that for our healthy ageing therapies to be successfully incorporated into society, the world population must first see it as a problem to seek ways to prevent it.

Our survey showed that the general public wish that they had been more educated about synthetic biology at school. We wanted to introduce synthetic biology and the problem of healthy ageing to as many age groups as we could in order to raise its awareness.

We have sparked the scientific curiosity of over 100 school students through interactive workshops to year 8, year 9 and year 12 students during numerous summer school programmes. We felt that interactive workshops were a great way to actively involve the students into our presentation by asking them questions, opinions, debates and activities such as drawing what they aspire to look like when they are old. After our first year 12 session, some students thanked us for giving the workshop and that they are inspired to think about taking part in iGEM during their university life. Just hearing comments like that after our very first session really inspired us to talk to and inspire more students! Have a look at our human practices outreach page to find out exactly how and what we did!

Year 12 student workshop during the Sutton Trust summer school programme

Should we treat ageing is a disease?

If ageing was seen as a disease, would the general public want to seek ways to prevent ageing and increase their healthy lifespan? We wanted to explore what people from different faiths and ages in London think about this and what we can do to change the way people think about healthy ageing. We held a number of open debates with year 8, 9 and 12 students where we asked them to argue for and against for “Should we treat ageing as a disease?”. Take a look at our outreach page to find out more.


App developed for adults and elderly

Technology is becoming ubiquitous in our society. With increased access to easy to use, yet powerful devices even the elderly are starting to adopt technology like smartphones and tablets. As mobile phones are becoming increasing part of our lives, we thought that developing an app may be a great way to get more people more aware of synthetic biology. We have decided to create a game that works by getting users to create certain biobricks, where the gene of interest will only complete the biobrick if the plasmid backbone is cut with the correct restriction enzymes. We want to make it as user friendly as possible and we are hoping to integrate our project and iGEM into the app as well.

We think there is great potential here, so we developed an app to try and widen public awareness of synthetic biology. We targeted the app at the older generation and aiming to give them a basic understanding of genetic engineering and the biobrick method of producing plasmids as there are very few apps that are targeted to the older population. Healthy ageing is all about taking care of our mind as well as bodies and our game can certainly exercise the brain to maintain the healthy brain!

The main part of the app is a game where you design a plasmid and see how bacteria behave under conditions that can be changed in real time, we also have built animations to explain the biobrick process and the different aspects of the project in an easy to understand way. Due to lack of time the app is still the early stages of development. We plan on working with focus groups of elderly to decrease the technological understanding needed to independently learn from the app and make it as accessible as possible.

We are also widening awareness of our project by having our biobricks in the app.

The left screenshot shows the edit plasmid screen with a blank plasmid, at the bottom the restriction enzyme selection screen is showing. The screenshot on the right shows a plasmid with two fragments ligated into it, from left to right we have a green light sensitive promoter and a bacteriocin gene. It is possible to insert a larger number of fragments and produce more complicated plasmids. At the bottom you can also see the promoter selection panel.

We have made our plasmid and inserted it into our bacteria and come to the petrie dish screen. The green bacteria are our bacteria containing the new plasmid and the red ones are the optional bad bacteria, as you can see they are dividing and moving around the petrie dish. On the bottom we have options for changing various conditions including a green light button (left screenshot). The right image shows that we have turned the green light on, activating the green light promoter and causing the bacteriocin gene in the plasmid to be expressed. The orange spiked things are the bacteriocin dropped by our green bacteria, if a bad bacterium comes into contact with one it will die, just like in our dental project!

The first image on the left shows the opening splash screen with all the sponsors. The next image shows the main homepage of our app, containing links to pages with information on our project, animations explaining what a biobrick is and a game. Then the third image shows the page with explanations for the various aspects of our project, synthetic biology and iGEM

Healthy ageing: Our London community

We were incredibly honoured to be able to go to the YMCA community centre to talk to some of the members of the older peoples group that take part in healthy ageing classes. The aim was to find out what the health conscious community think about our project. Would they go as far as synthetic biology? Some team members also got to take part in the Zumba sessions with the older members! Find out more and see videos here.

Science and art

Art is a fantastic medium to make people more familiar and involved with science. It also can help to overcome public distrust towards new technologies which, as we found out in our survey, is particularly important in case of synthetic biology. As a part of our engagement strategy, we discussed our ideas and started a collaboration with two fabulous artists - please see the details here.


Online community

Around 72% of adults in the UK use a computer at least once a day. We wanted to share our experiences and highlights of iGEM with the online community to increase our impact of spreading awareness of synthetic biology and our project to the world! We created blog where we have posted some tips for future iGEM teams, based on what we are learning as we go through the process and monthly project updates. You can see our blog here.

We have also created fun video contents (vlog’s) for both our wiki and youtube accounts. We wanted to not only introduce our team in a fun and creative way but also show the public what happens behind the scenes. We managed to capture all the various personalities portrayed within our team, which has enriched our working environment and allowed us to learn and thrive with and from each other.

As iGEM picked up speed and the workload increased we sadly started lacking in Vlog material. At the very end of our iGEM path we decided to compile all of the remaining footage and make one final Vlog. However, we believe that by showcasing the fun and special moments through our journey, we can inspire the next generation of synthetic biologists to take part in iGEM and show them that although the science and outreach is at the core of iGEM, there are many more facets to be explored. Below you can see the vlogs that we made.




With social media slowly taking over all our lives, we are always surrounded by it. Hence we wanted to share our iGEM experiences by providing our followers live updates of what the team is up to! Through exploring and developing our photography skills of our colourful test tubes in Instagram, to tweeting members of parliament and chocolate factories on twitter we could really actively engage with the public and share all the exciting things we have been doing!

Synthetic biology showcase: Biosynthage meets the world

The UCL GEM team 2016 presented at the Annual Synthetic Biology Showcase at UCL. This was a unique opportunity to share our project with leading synthetic biology researchers, shape our newer ideas as well as to discuss the ethics of our project. We introduced iGEM, our motivation for choosing ageing as a topic area and the different approaches we were tackling, the feedback was positive and we were asked some interesting questions such as:

1. Professor John Ward: With regards to the anti-plaque bacteriocin device, how will you avoid targeting 'good' gram positive bacteria? (The bacteriocin we are using targets S. mutans specifically which ensures the oral microbiome is not altered dramatically).

2. Professor Steve Miller: Why should we be focusing on ageing and the elderly population - does anyone care? (The fact that we have an ageing population makes our project considerably relevant. We wish to promote healthy ageing in individuals and whilst this is something that will have dramatic impact on lives it will also reduce the burden this demographic has upon the NHS.)

After presenting alongside academics we took the floor to present our poster but also had the chance to talk to Professor Steve Miller of the RRI who focus on building the bridge between science and public policy who thought our project "sounds interesting" even though we still "have a lot to do". He also suggested that we get in contact with Age UK, to organise some focus groups and find out what people who are affected think!

Michelle, Abbie and Amandeep presenting at the annual synthetic biology showcase

See how public engagement and education has influenced the design and execution of our project here