As a complement to our low income schools educational efforts, we decided to participate in Exposcience, asked our university's communication department to make us a divulgational video for the general public, and were selected by the most important local newspaper "El TIempo" that wrote an article about us!
ExpoScience is Colombia's largest science and technology fair where state of the art national and international advances are shown. Additionally, over 900 students are invited to come by the government, since it's also the gathering of the country's best universities with science programs - where they are given a place to impress and attract students. This year, we participated from the 18th to the 23rd of October with our own stand, where we were able to illustrate people from all ages what the genetic code is, how it works, introduce them to the concept of synthetic biology and introduce the iGEM competition to over 500 thousand fair visitors.
More specifically, we prepared three activities meant for the general public in which we presented the basic mechanisms of gene transcription and translation, synthetic biology based on standard parts and its potential for our country through our project. Since we had students from almost every grade, we prepared educational activities as an empirical introduction to the aforementioned concepts.
1. We made up a game where children could play while learning the mechanics of transcription and translation, deciphering the genetic code and building up proteins. The game consists of: • A game mat that represents a cell with a space or the nucleus and a strand of mRNA attached to a ribosome. • An inflatable pool. • Acrylic nucleotides with shapes that complement each other as they do in reality (G-C, U-A). • Acrylic aminoacids in different colors. Children were explained the basics of the code and made to get into the pool previously filled with the nucleotides and aminoacids to complete the code printed in the mat. Every three nucleotides they could decide which aminoacid they'd like to attach. The code was made in such a way that there was only one open reading frame possible and that there was a codon that repeated itself so participants had to use the same aminoacid twice. After the activity was over, we made a short lecture explaining them that this is the exact way cells operate, and that proteins ultimately determine the cell's function, thus the importance of the genetic code.
2. We also designed second game where students were able to apply the basic concepts of synthetic biology using standard parts by constructing their own DNA sequence.
The game consisted of iGEM's biobrick convention shaped cardboard pieces with an electrical circuit attached in such a way that a LED would turn on only if the different parts were put next to each other in an appropriate order. The parts are: • 4 promoters, 3 looking right and one looking left with different voltages. • 4 ribosome binding sites with different resistors. • 4 coding sequences with different LED colors. • 4 terminators.
The different pieces were engineered in such a way that the expression of a coding sequence would be illustrated by the turning on of its LED. However, to add customizability we designed our different parts in these ways: • Promoters have the batteries that power up the circuit, as well as different resistors to illustrate how some promoters could express more or less of a given coding sequence (resulting in different levels of LED brightness). • Ribosome binding sites also contained different resistors so that coupled with different promoters, even more levels of brightness may be achieved. • Terminators would close the circuit so that in their absence no LED would turn on. • The connections between parts were made up of small pieces of metallic sponges attached to the flanking wires so that changing parts and connecting them became very easy. • Parts were also designed in such a way that ribosome binding sites could only be connected between a promoter and a coding through specific distances of the connecting sponges. In the same way, coding sequences could only be connected between a ribosome binding site and a terminator.
A small introduction about how synthetic biology allows us to write and engineer our own code was made and volunteers were asked to try and connect the different pieces until the LED turned on. Once it finally did, we asked them to try different promoters, coding sequences, and ribosome binding sites and to tell us what happened. The volunteers were asked to return to the public and we then gave a short lecture about part interchangeability and the main functions of each of the parts. By using this approach, the public was made to understand first-hand what the standard biological parts system advantages are, as well as how the genetic code is by no means random.