A global lab for teaching and practicing synthetic biology

How do you retain a hands-on artificial biology lab class going throughout a pandemic?

As a singular staff of MIT and Harvard Medical Faculty school, instructing assistants, and college students describe in a new paper in Nature Biotechnology, the reply entails robots and instructing assistants working collectively within the lab, a brand new method of designing experiments, and mentoring and collaboration throughout a number of time zones.

David S. Kong, director of the Group Biotechnology Initiative on the MIT Media Lab, teaches MAS.S64 (How to Grow (Almost) Anything) together with Media Lab Affiliate Professor Joseph Jacobson and Professor George Church of Harvard Medical Faculty. The category was impressed by MIT Professor and Middle for Bits and Atoms Director Neil Gershenfeld’s well-liked rapid-prototyping class MAS.863 (How to Make (Almost) Anything), says Kong: “The primary design of the curriculum had sturdy metaphorical linkages to digital fabrication, however have been mapped to biology. Through the years we have now advanced the course to deal with constructing core skillsets to allow bio-enthusiasts, no matter their earlier biology expertise, to essentially specific themselves creatively utilizing dwelling programs.”

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Members within the newest iteration of Develop (Nearly) Something, or HTGAA, developed a tool that assembles viruslike protein shells for potential drug supply, a bioreactor that produces aroma compounds for astronauts, and bioart of a world map “painted” utilizing micro organism.

The aim has all the time been to share the instruments and information of artificial biology with the widest potential viewers, shifting past molecular biology researchers to artists, engineers, and social justice advocates, amongst others.

The category, particularly in its new hybrid distance-learning kind mentioned within the paper, has the potential to “democratize artificial biology,” at a time when “we’re the verge of changing a lot—or all—manufacturing, from sensible supplies to computing, from physics- and chemistry-based to biology-based,” says Church, who is typically known as the “father of genomics” and a number one skilled in artificial biology and private genomics.

“We’re dwelling in an period the place many highly effective applied sciences are developed by and infrequently profit a really elite and privileged sector of society,” Kong provides. “It’s my perception that for ethical causes, and likewise for innovation causes, that it’s necessary for various communities all all over the world to have entry to those instruments and applied sciences and to discover ways to use them safely and ethically.

Robots to the rescue

The category started in 2015 as a world schooling initiative, and was impressed by how Gershenfeld’s course was taught globally in a community of what’s now over 2,500 community fab labs. In its first editions, HTGAA was taught to each the Fab Lab community together with the worldwide group biology community, which Kong helps arrange by way of the Global Community Bio Summit.

In 2019, Kong and Church first provided HTGAA to MIT and Harvard College graduate college students. However in March 2020, halfway by means of the course, the upcoming pandemic compelled the nearly-full closure of MIT buildings and labs, the paper authors recall.

With out entry to a moist lab to hold out experiments, and college students unable to collaborate face-to-face, the instructors redesigned the course in 2021. College students now listened to digital lectures from world-renowned researchers and ethics consultants, however in addition they carried out cloud-based experiment simulations. They realized easy methods to code their remaining tasks so {that a} liquid-handling robotic at MIT may perform their experiments, generally with the assistance of a instructing assistant, as they watched the method remotely.

The researchers had been increasing digital facets of the category earlier than 2020, “however our dedication was accelerated by the in any other case unlucky COVID-19 catastrophe,” says Church. “This empowered us to get significantly better at each making the mentoring as actual as potential by way of flat display and making robotic ‘cloud labs’ straightforward and reasonably priced.”

College students from six continents have since joined the MIT class, Kong says, a lot of them with out a background in molecular biology. The category features a “boot camp” in biology fundamentals for many who want it, however “we actually deal with talent constructing,” he provides. “You study simply sufficient idea that you would be able to perceive what you’re doing within the lab, however the important thing facet is the hands-on, artificial biology lab strategies that college students purchase every week.”

Media Lab Analysis Assistant Eyal Perry SM ’21, lead creator of the Nature Biotechnology paper, was a pupil within the 2020 pandemic class who returned as a instructing assistant in 2021. He mentioned the deal with coding and simulation of experiments gave college students a shared language that’s uncommon in lab bench biology.

“We form of began it due to the pandemic, however I believe we could have uncovered one thing that’s elementary for future schooling,” Perry says. “I believe that this concept of biology by means of code, studying easy methods to execute protocols and making issues utilizing robots and code, could possibly be a brand new technique to do issues as we progress to a brand new period in artificial biology.”

International development

The educators and college students describe a way forward for native nodes, regional hubs and “super-core” websites that may join college students with growing ranges of know-how and collaboration. In Taiwan, as an illustration, a HTGAA participant has already arrange an lively node for college kids, Kong says.

Kong provides that alumni have been very important in “rising the category, and because the international attain expands, we’re actually constructing a wealthy and highly effective progressive international studying group that goes far past simply the course itself.”

Dominika Wawrzyniak was an HGTAA international listener in 2021 and later a world instructing assistant in 2022. Now a PhD pupil in biomedical engineering at New York College, she says the category is “additionally very rewarding for people who find themselves already within the discipline itself, since you come throughout so many alternative approaches to artificial biology which might be very distinctive simply as a result of the truth that individuals have very completely different backgrounds.”

Participating designers, artists, engineers and thinkers with the observe of artificial biology “is a greater technique to have a know-how revolution,” Perry suggests. “We’re not attempting to show every thing on this class, however actually open the door, and a number of time the door is what persons are lacking.”


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