IDR Team Summary 9
How do we maximally capitalize on the promise of synthetic biology?
The burgeoning field of Synthetic Biology offers the dual promise of solving some of the most profound challenges facing society as well as providing a fundamentally deeper understanding of the functioning of living systems. Synthetic Biology provides us a new view of biology, a view that offers an unprecedented level of knowledge about how parts of biological systems function in isolation and within natural or reconfigured living organisms. At present however, our ability to tackle the grandest challenges facing the field remain relatively primitive. Issues that need to be addressed to fully exploit what Synthetic Biology has to offer include technological, educational, institutional, and communication barriers to progress. To fully exploit the opportunities that lie ahead in Synthetic Biology, it is essential that we transform the currently existing cultures in scientific, educational, governmental, and communication institutions by embracing innovative new strategies for promoting this young field.
In terms of education, we need to train young scientists to view biology with fresh eyes. Starting at a young age (K-12), students need to understand that complex biological systems are not wholly reliant on their endogenous parts; rather, they can be evolved or engineered. Students need to know that biological systems can be understood through principles, not through memorization. We need to teach students that biological systems often have critical applications. Finally, our students need to appreciate that interdisciplinary knowledge lies at the heart of innovation.
It is also imperative that we break down “silos” in our academic insti-
tutions. Synthetic Biology demands that biologists, chemists, physicists, and mathematicians work together with engineers. The deep philosophical divide between what might be called “pure science” and “engineering” must be bridged. In Synthetic Biology, understanding, manipulation, and application are intimately linked, and we need to provide an academic culture along with an appropriate infrastructure that allows academics to simultaneously explore multiple aspects of this field.
Another challenge is the gap that exists between academics and industry. This gap is most severe when one considers partnerships between basic sciences and industry, because the science fields lack the interface that engineering-based fields have traditionally had with industry. Mechanisms need to be put in place to enable academics, together with industry partners, to move from the proof of principle experiment in a petri plate (or the like) to the industrial scale.
Concurrent with the above, a shift must occur within the funding agency culture. Long-term strategic plans could be envisioned that both stimulate and incentivize cooperation among diverse disciplines and agencies to solve common foundational problems. Rigorous mechanisms for effectively evaluating new science coming from a new field need to be imagined.
Critically, we need a fundamental change in communication both within and outside the scientific community. Within the greater scientific community, Synthetic Biologists must move research beyond the border of a particular discipline. Going forward, scientists must be able to coherently explain the intellectual merit and relevant application of the work along with the technology and molecular mechanisms underpinning it to a broad scientific audience. Likewise, it is the job of the scientist to help non-scientists become good consumers of science. Outreach is especially critical in the Synthetic Biology field because the work can blur the distinction between animate and inanimate objects and therefore the research can potentially have an extreme ethical, religious, and social impact. Finally, our government needs to wrestle with balancing and promoting scientific innovation in Synthetic Biology with its serious safety and ethical considerations.
How can Synthetic Biology be taught in schools in order to engage students in biology? How can we teach Synthetic Biology in a way that integrates it with other sciences and engineering?
How can academic institutions be restructured to promote the development of unique interdisciplinary sciences like Synthetic Biology?
How can academic/industry partnerships be enhanced to catalyze Synthetic Biology applications?
How can we maximize the efforts of government agencies to responsibly lay the foundation for Synthetic Biology?
How can we prepare scientists to effectively engage with the diverse collections of people with interest in Synthetic Biology?
ARISE: Advancing Research in Science and Engineering. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 2008:http://www.amacad.org/arisefolder/default.aspx. Accessed online July 28, 2009.
BIO 2010: National Research Council. Transforming Undergraduate Education for Further Research Biologists. 2003: http://books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10497#toc. Accessed online July 28, 2009.
Jurkowski A, Reid AH, and Labov JB. Metagenomics: A Call for Bringing a New Science into the Classroom (While It’s Still New). CBE Life Sci Educ 2007;6(4): 260-265: http://www.lifescied.org/cgi/content/full/6/4/260#F2. Accessed online August 12, 2009.
IDR TEAM MEMBERS
Roee Amit, California Institute of Technology
Austin Che, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Narasimhan Danthi, NIH/NHBI
Laura Dress, University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC)
Roxanne Ford, W.M. Keck Foundation
Jay Labov, The National Academies
Yi Lu, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Julie Norville, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Jeffrey L. Poet, Missouri Western State University
Penny Riggs, Texas A&M University
Alexander Rose, The Long Now Foundation
Michael L. Shuler, Cornell University
Eileen M. Spain, Occidental College
Joseph B. Calamia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
IDR TEAM SUMMARY
By Joseph B. Calamia, Graduate Science Writing Student, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
In one way, synthetic biology is a perspective. Seeing living systems as a series of parts, researchers craft new tools from basic biological components. Adding new genes to the workings of E. coli, for example, synthetic biologists have already transformed bacteria into anti-malarial drug factories. As researchers from diverse backgrounds, with training in fields from systems biology to computer engineering, collaborate to build increasingly complex biological systems, some hope to gain deeper insights into the details of how biology works. The 2009 National Academies Keck Futures Initiative Conference on Synthetic Biology asked an Interdisciplinary Research Team (IDR) of 13 scientists and engineers to discuss the best ways to realize this “dual promise” of synthetic biology, as a means both to solve important problems in biology and to enhance understanding of living systems. While leaving the technical details of synthetic biology to other IDR teams, this group defined some of the educational, institutional, and communication barriers to maximally capitalizing on the promises of synthetic biology. The IDR team concluded that part of the solution is to educate young scientists in new ways, to break down divisions within and across academic disciplines and institutions, and to improve general science communication.
Educating Scientists and Citizens
In November 2009, 110 teams of undergraduates, a total of 1,200 participants from around the world, came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to compete for a “Biobrick” trophy, the grand prize in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, known as iGEM (http://2009.igem.org/Main_Page).
At iGEM, teams design new biological systems (everything from banana-scented bacteria to arsenic biosensors) from a registry of “standard, interchangeable biological parts,” including promoters, plasmids, and primers. The Grand Prize Winner of the 2009 competition, Cambridge University, created “E. chromi”—a modified version of E. coli that changes color when exposed to certain chemicals, and may lead to an easy-to-read test for certain diseases.
The IDR team saw iGEM as an ideal teaching model for synthetic biol-
ogy and other multidisciplinary fields, and encouraged the creation of an iGEM competition for younger students. In general, they hoped for new, imaginative and inspirational ways to educate youth (K-12), through radio, television, and science-based games and competitions. Children should not be taught to see science as merely a corpus of facts to memorize and forget after an exam, but as a means to investigate the world. iGEM is one of many approaches to accomplishing that ideal.
Using synthetic biology as a model, teachers can demonstrate how scientists engineer biological systems and that interdisciplinary knowledge is a way toward innovation. As a field, synthetic biology will benefit from teachers who encourage young students to become future scientists and scientifically educated citizens. As pedagogical material, examples from synthetic biology will also provide a useful paradigm for educating students about other collaborative fields of research.
Undergraduate college courses that focus solely on memorizing facts turn many students away from additional scientific studies. The IDR team cited Elaine Seymour and Nancy M. Hewitt’s book Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences (1997) and noted that almost 50 percent of first-year undergraduates intending to study hard sciences end up switching to other majors. “Science and Engineering Indicators,” published every two years by the National Science Board, has more recently reported similar results. To encourage college students to study science and to create a more scientifically educated citizenry, the group encouraged active scientific investigation during students’ early undergraduate careers and the creation of more opportunities for experimentation and laboratory experiences as part of introductory courses, including those for non-majors.
Turning to the education of professionals, the IDR team noted that even many research scientists have trouble defining the fledgling field of synthetic biology. Part of their difficulty may result from a “philosophical divide” between the pure sciences (such as biology) and applied sciences (such as engineering). To overcome communication hurdles between active researchers, the team suggested funding workshops to train across disciplines, aimed specifically at faculty, post-doctoral students, and graduate students—as this exercise would be helpful in any interdisciplinary pursuit. They also encouraged the creation of additional synthetic biology professional master’s degree programs. This would continue the current trend to establish such degrees in a variety of scientific disciplines, as reported in the National Research Council’s 2008 report Science Professionals:
Master’s Education for a Competitive World (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12064).
Communicating Synthetic Biology
A misunderstanding of swine flu hurt pork sales. People sued the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), fearing that the Large Hadron Collider would swallow Earth in a black hole. An advertisement for dress slacks that contained the word nanofibers engendered protests against nanotechnology. The public, the team believes, needs to be better educated about cutting-edge science so that it can better separate imagined risks from real ones.
The group suggested funding new “audience research surveys” to discover current public concerns and beliefs about synthetic biology and related fields. This research should allow scientists to recognize possible problems in how they frame their research. These surveys would also help researchers as they work with science communicators to develop new means for distributing lay descriptions of latest research to keep the public accurately informed. If the field hopes to attract younger generations, researchers’ use of outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia will be essential for communicating the results, implications, relevance, and excitement of new research. For example, the group suggested that graduate students publish lay summaries of major scientific papers in a public Internet source. Along these lines, the team encouraged researchers to collaborate with media and university press offices to increase the chances that their research receives accurate and prominent reportage.
As a final means to address possible public concerns, the team suggested actively developing a code of ethics for synthetic biology researchers, drawing on existing protocols regarding similar kinds of research, such as genetic engineering. An active approach to creating this code by gathering a summit of diverse stakeholders would help mitigate fears and also encourage funding for this new field. This summit might also provide a means to avoid reactionary government policymaking, which could inhibit the field’s growth.