5 Ways to Make Synthetic Biology A More Approachable Topic

Akanksha Saxena

Introduction: Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology lies at the interface of Systems Biology (understanding of the natural gene network), Metabolic Engineering (building new gene networks), and Computer Science (modeling and analyzing data). 

With the advent of this field, redesigning biological organisms for the good of human beings, nature, and commercial purposes became easier. By bio-engineering the internal circuits of genetic networks, genes and their structures, their activity, and their expression levels, synthetic scientists have been able to assign new abilities to biological species.

Now you must be wondering what the use of this field is. 

And if it’s so important, why are the students so terrorized by the mere mention of this topic?

In this article, we aim to equip all teachers and educators with the ability to make this topic engaging for their students. As synthetic biology has myriad applications that have been deciphered not just in academic labs but also in the R&D of industries, students, when taught with examples, can turn their fear into interest. Yes, this science isn’t something your students should be rote learning about! It can be applied across fields like medicine, agriculture, bio-energy, pharmaceutical and vaccine development, and much more. 

Read on to learn more about how you can ease the process of explaining synthetic biology to students in your next class. We try to highlight all the issues encountered by students when dealing with the subject. We also list some practical solutions to solve the same. By the end, we’ll convince you why a virtual lab simulation will prove useful not only for your students but also for you as an educator to deliver concepts more efficiently.

3 reasons why Synthetic Biology can be tricky to teach or learn

There are three reasons why students feel challenged by the topic of Synthetic Biology. Acknowledging these issues is the first step toward making the topic more approachable. 

1. There are too many complex techniques involved 

The lab work involved in the bioengineering methodology of synthetic biology is very complex for students. Redesigning biological circuits as perfectly as the natural circuits designed by nature has to be complex. No doubt we are competing with nature's enigmatic designs. Steps of the various techniques like gel electrophoresis, restriction digestion, electroporation, bacterial transformation, transformant selection (antibiotics selection), plasmid isolation and purification, gateway cloning, etc are even more difficult to assimilate for students. Furthermore, comprehending the peculiar details of each one of these further complicates the topic for students.

2. Core concepts are shaky

Students are often intimidated by complex techniques because their core concepts don’t have a solid foundation. When your students don’t understand the bacterial structure and the basic difference between nucleoid and plasmid DNA, it might not be worth teaching them synthetic biology directly. Since bacterial plasmids are commonly used in synthetic biology to transfer desirable genes (thereby traits) from one organism to another, a lack of knowledge related to basic bacterial structure could be a problem. Also, many students don’t understand the need for sterile lab handling techniques and the use of UV laminar flows where all the synthetic biology work is performed. These gaps in knowledge can make the lab work and theory of synthetic biology exponentially hard for your students.

3. Lack of visualization as everything is microscopic 

Since all the steps in synthetic biology techniques are running at the microscopic level, students find it challenging to keep up with the work. Assays and tests are the only feasible visualization options. Moreover, when positive results take time to come, the techniques become taxing and mentally tiring for students. Setting up reactions and getting to visualize nothing at the end of the assay demotivates them to learn more about synthetic biology. The public domain's lack of videos and clips further aggravates the problem. It becomes difficult for the new learner to follow the steps of the techniques.  

5 ways to make Synthetic Biology a more approachable topic to understand

To address the blocks encountered while teaching Synthetic Biology, educators can engage the under-listed solutions in their classes. These can clarify many instrumental aspects of the major techniques involved. Not only can they make teaching easier for educators like you but will also make lessons clearer and easier to assimilate for your students.

1. Cement the core concepts

First and foremost, the advice is to solidify the foundation where students build their core concepts in the class. We know that this is the most underrated solution, but it will work. Explain some of these underlisted topics in your class as the first step to teaching synthetic biology.

  • The basic structure of bacteria and yeasts (Reason: As they are widely used as biofactories and their microstructures find use as vehicles and vectors like bacterial plasmids)

  • Mandatory rules for working in synthetic biology labs (Reason: As the environmental contamination in the techniques can yield negative or false results. Teaching the basics of sterile lab work like autoclaving, repeated wiping for aseptic conditions, sterilization of all the glassware and plasticware used, etc can help omit the introduction of unwanted microorganisms.)

  • Principle underlying gel electrophoresis (Reason: Since students will be repeatedly doing DNA molecule separation, gel electrophoresis should be thorough to them). You can also use the Gel Electrophoresis simulation provided by Labster for University / College classes for delivering more effective lessons.

On the same note, building the core concepts of different techniques and teaching the basic principles of different chemicals and methods applied in synthetic biology protocols can help them overcome the fear around this topic.

2. Train them well

Since synthetic biology involves a long list of techniques, practical lab handling is highly recommended. When students perform their different steps, properly guiding and emphasizing the role of different chemicals, buffers, temperature and humidity conditions is very important.

  • Gateway Cloning: When introducing this cloning technique, educators must ensure that the students are aware of the limitations of conventional cloning performed via restriction endonucleases and ligases. This will make them appreciate the science behind gateway cloning. Then, you can proceed and explain the generation of entry clones and expression clones which ultimately lead to the generation of expression vectors. Using illustrative flow charts to explain the different steps of gateway cloning can ease the process for students. Otherwise, you can also use the Synthetic Biology simulation from Labster to engage the students in active learning related to gateway cloning.

gateway cloning

Figure: An illustrative flowchart showing the two reactions (BP and LR) for the generation of expression vectors. More informative content is available in the Synthetic Biology simulation from Labster is available for University / College classes. (Image Source)

  • Electroporation: Explaining the importance of this step can help your students in paying particular attention while performing it. The generation of competent cells is ensured by basically physical or chemical methods. Electroporation is one of them. Without puncturing the tough cell wall of the bacterial cells, it is impossible to pass the desired DNA (plasmid) across the bacterial cell. As the cells are subjected to an electric field in this process, optimum exposure can be understood only by practical lab handling experience and knowing the rationale behind the step. (Rationale: increase cell’s permeability). 

sbl GIF

Figure: An interactive illustration showing the desk set up for the introduction of an expression vector in the competent cells. It is available in the Synthetic Biology simulation from Labster and is available for University / College classes.

3. Let them know the practical applications

It is more convincing to learn about a technology when you can see it being practically useful and feasible across various domains. On this note, we propose the idea of listing the various ways in which synthetic biology has revolutionized science. We list some of them for you to begin with.

  • Pharmaceuticals industry: A successful example of Sitagliptin (medicine for type II diabetes) can be quoted. Earlier its synthesis wasn’t biologically possible. But with the identification of a ‘transaminase’ that could catalyze the biological production route, opened doors for an industrial level of environment-friendly production of Sitagliptin.

  • Bioenergy and biofuel: Industries across the world are rigorously working on different bio-pathways to find and manipulate the production of diesel alternatives. They engage synthetic biology approaches for the same.

  • Antibiotic production

  • Vaccine development

  • Chemicals for management of agricultural wastes

4. Relate it to the economy and figures

Students can be made curious about the topic by showing them financial figures related to science. The United States is the leader and major investor in its synthetic biology field, which is reflected by the positive outcomes that the country has received; both in terms of advancement of science and finances. 

The global synthetic biology market has been growing geometrically in the past decade. It is projected to reach $30.7 billion by the year 2026. It has been stated to be the “defining technology of the next century” and expects an exponential rise in global investments in the next decade. Being ranked as the 2nd key technology of the 21st century, synthetic biology is one field where more and more future scientists can contribute. By informing students about the global importance of technology, you can motivate them to stay inquisitive about the subject.

5. Use virtual lab simulations

Since synthetic biology is a diverse and interdisciplinary field, it can sometimes become a very difficult subject for students to learn. Moreover, the lack of tools to deliver an effective classroom lesson on the subject worries the educators. Even though educators and teachers are passionate about demonstrating the different techniques and methodologies in their classes, a lack of funds and resources can serve as an impediment. 

We, at Labster, understand this challenge of educators like you. We bring virtual laboratory simulations that can ease your process of lecture delivery and lab handling sessions. You can make more insightful points as students are rendered with better visual options. The 3D simulations help them understand the intricacies of operating synthetic biology techniques. 

synthetic  biology 2

Your students don’t have to struggle to imagine different intricate steps of gateway cloning or transformation as our interactive Synthetic Biology simulation along with gamification elements come to the rescue. By using this way of active and immersive teaching, our virtual learning platform takes an advent in the field of Science to make the upcoming scientists thorough with the “basics of their respective subjects.” 

synthetic biology 2

Figure: An image from the Synthetic Biology simulation by Labster, which is available for  University / College classes.

You can learn more about the Synthetic Biology simulation from Labster here or get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students.

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