Team:BostonU HW/HP/Silver


Outreach, industry, and IP blogs for the iGEM community
When we started development of Neptune the question was raised:

How do other researchers and industries use microfluidics?
How much does the public know about microfluidics?

By answering these two questions we could tailor Neptune to be as useful as possible, by as many people as possible.
We could develop an accessible workflow.

To this end, we decided to visit several synthetic biology labs and companies to learn more about their use of microfluidics. We also participated in public outreach and education, using this as an opportunity to educate the public about synthetic biology, and to learn more about the public's view of microfluidics. Finally, we wrote several blogs on IP in synthetic biology, drawing from what we learned about the importance of accessibility in synthetic biology.

In this page we cover 3 sections to our Silver HP contributions:
  1. We discuss our public outreach and education contributions.
  2. We summarize our industry visits
  3. We conclude by exploring our contribution to the iGEM community: A reference blog on IP in synthetic biology

Public and Educational Outreach
The goal of public engagement was twofold: firstly, we wanted to do our part in educating the public about synthetic biology, and about microfluidics! Secondly, we wanted to learn about what the public knew about microfluidics- are DIY microfluidics a common practice? Does the average person know what a microfluidic is? Our first outreach was the Building with Biology event at the Boston Museum of Science.

Building with Biology | 29 June 2016
In the Building with Biology event, our team participated as guest researchers, we worked alongside museum staff to present museum goers with synthetic biology activities. These activities serve to educate the people playing, and we also got to learn about what the public knew about in synthetic biology.

One such activity included solving problems using various genetic “building blocks,” each labeled with a specific function. These literal blocks represented genetic parts that could be stacked together to make a full genetic circuit to solve the problem at hand. Kids loved this game, as it was very hands on; much to our surprise, many younger kids were very creative, and very open with new ideas, like creating synthetic blood. Another example of an activity that received great public reception was the “golden rice” table, where we showed museum goers a plate of yeast that expressed the gene for beta-carotene, and “golden bread,” baked with this yeast. We were again surprised by how many members of the public were open to such ideas.

We taught the public about microfluidics as well, making the analogy of scientists doing experiments to bakers trying to find the best cake. If the baker only needed a taste to test how the cake came out, why make a whole cake? We described microfluidics as “mini-ovens” in which scientists could make “mini-cakes,” to check if the “cake” came out good. This would save the baker/scientist lots of time and ingredients.

After these activities, we met with the public for a forum on ethics in synthetic biology. This was an amazing opportunity! We were able to sit side-by-side at a table with members of the public; we got to listen to a talk on gene drives as a solution to malaria, and we got to play out an ethical decision making process. In this roleplay, we acted as members of the local public and government in a Zambian community considering to use a gene drive to rid malaria. We got to discuss our plan of action, and we had to come to a conclusion on whether to release GM mosquitoes.

Summer Pathways | 12 July 2016
In our experiences at Building with Biology, we found that most people in the public had never heard of microfluidics. Our next human practice event was educational outreach to young women in high school interested in STEM program.

In order to reach out to young women interested in STEM fields of study, we teamed up with the BostonU iGEM wetlab team to speak at the Boston University-hosted event Summer Pathways. During this event, we were able to teach high school students from areas around New England about basic synthetic biology and electrical engineering principles through interactive activities hosted with smaller groups. We then engaged all of these students in a discussion about synbio and engineering ethics in a forum on whether or not the proposed solution of terraforming Mars was reasonable and ethical. Each student first read a short article explaining more context and highlighting various options as possible paths of action. All of these options encouraged students to consider and discuss biologists’ responsibilities to human civilization, other life forms, and the environment.

We had an opportunity to show these young women our research and the microfluidic devices and control infrastructure we build for the devices. Again, most students had never heard of these devices, but we were able to show that these devices had practical uses in the lab.

Industry and Lab Visits
Our educational and public outreach allowed us to teach younger generations and members of the public about synthetic biology, and about microfluidics. Much to our surprise, microfluidic devices were not well known by most people we spoke too.

To gather more information about how synthetic biologists use microfluidics, we staged several visits to biotech companies that use synthetic biology, and we even spoke to a microfluidic fabrication company.

Ginkgo BioWorks | 28 JUNE 2016
The first company we visited was Ginkgo Bioworks. In this short visit, we toured their Boston based facility and had the opportunity to learn both about their research, and about the tools they use to do synthetic biology. The detail that stood out to us the most was: Whoa, they sure do have a lot of hardware! As a hardware team, we strive to enable synthetic biologists by creating software and hardware that accelerates research and discovery: Ginkgo Bioworks had no shortage of tools to enable rapid discovery and characterization. They had tools to automate as much of the synthetic biology workflow as possible: PCR tools, pipetting machines and software to keep track of all device characterization.

As it would turn out, we learned that some hardware that Ginkgo used did incorporate microfluidic technology. Some devices that are used to measure expression of certain proteins in a sample do so using microliters of a sample, and these devices have built-in microfluidics. Needless to say, this equipment was very specialized and incredibly high cost.

Aside from very specialized machines that incorporated microfluidics, we found that Ginkgo did not use these devices in their regular workflow.

Lab Central & Sembler | 23 JUNE 2016
At this point we were very curious: our investigations led us to conclude that microfluidics were not widely known about by the public, and in industry and research these devices seemed specialized and costly, also sparsely used. We knew already that synthetic biology research labs at Boston University only use microfluidics to a very limited extent. Overall, we concluded that microfluidics are not widely used. But why?

To explore this question, we visited Lab Central, a hub for young and emerging biotechnology companies that need a lab space. Here, there were dozens of small synthetic biology startups. At Lab Central we presented our work on Neptune, highlighting the workflow as accessible for researchers new to microfluidics.

While at Lab Central, we met with representatives from Sembler, a Draper affiliated microfluidic fabrication company. We learned about what Sembler offers: for several hundred dollars, you could order custom designed batches of microfluidic chips. These are single use, single purpose chips. Sembler provides once monthly fabrication and delivery.

Intellectual Property Blog
In our outreach events, we found that the public, and even high school students interested in synthetic biology and engineering, have never heard of microfluidics. Further, we noticed in out industry visits that most microfluidics used are prohibitively costly and very specialized to a single task. Accessibility is a huge issues with microfluidics.

We then decided to center our human practices contributions around accessibility by creating a blog called "Who Owns What". In this blog we discuss intellectual property rights in synthetic biology, and how these important ideas shape the environment of synthetic biology we know today. This blog is an educational reference to anyone in the community who wants to learn more about IP in synthetic biology.

Definitions | Post One
Our post, “A General Overview of Intellectual Property in Synthetic Biology: Part 1” began our blog series by going over the basics of intellectual property. In essence, the post provided needed background and definitions such as patent, copyright and trademark, as well as a roadmap to future posts.

Software IP | Post Two
Our post, “A General Overview of Intellectual Property in Synthetic Biology: Part 2” continued the flurry of necessary definitions from Part 1, but went farther and began drawing comparisons between intellectual property in synthetic biology and the closest cousin in regards to policy and property laws: software.

IP in Synthetic Biology: Part 1 | Post Three
Our post, “IP in Synthetic Biology: Part 1” offers a brief history of intellectual property from the beginning of such laws in Venice in the late 1400s to the beginning of the copyright and patent system in the U.S. in the 1790s. The post poses questions to the reader to induce a discussion in how intellectual property laws have expanded in breadth of protection since the beginning.