Science in the UK really has escaped the laboratory, from popular TV programs on BBC TV such as Science Club hosted by comedian and science graduate Dara O’Briain, to national newspaper The Observer launching a monthly 36-page science and technology supplement. New media and old media have helped position scientific issues, research and innovation at the heart of everyday life. It’s partly due to how science increasingly touches our lives in very tangible ways from new digital technologies to medicines, but it’s also driven by the dynamic culture fostered in UK university science and technology departments that produces undergraduates and graduates looking to take the excitement of science to the general public. Take for example University College London’s iGEM team.
iGEM – the International Genetically Engineered Machine based at MIT in the US – runs a competition each year, and the UCL team have been developing a project called Darwin Toolbox. The competition is designed to promote the rapidly growing new discipline of Synthetic Biology, defined by the The Royal Society as “the design and construction of novel artificial biological pathways, organisms and devices or the redesign of existing natural biological systems.” The hope for those who champion this new field is that scientists can design new biological forms to help provide advances in medicine, food and even address energy and environmental problems.
So one aspect of The Darwin Toolbox is to inform, educate and give more people access. UCL Computer Science student Philipp Boeing, an organizer of the iGEM team says they develop the toolbox so you could ‘do something interesting with it. It’s obviously not going to have quite the same accuracy as a £50,000 machine but it’s accurate enough that you can do something interesting with it in a school or student environment.”
The box is a 13in x 11in flight case, with the basic features of a biotechnology lab – a PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) machine which is like a DNA copying machine, a centrifuge to rotate the DNA, and a box that performs gel electrophoresis, separating the DNA. “You can do everything to extract DNA, copy and select different segments of DNA and then make it visible with this box,” explains Boeing.
It’s a project in development. “We are building a platform around it so you can share your experiments online with people, they can comment on it they can see what you are doing. You can join projects, there are a lot of tutorials that we want to curate so you can buy this without knowing too much biology and start learning by doing in an environment that is curated and safe.” The UCL team showed the work-in-progress at the Maker-Faire in Rome, and the team were overwhelmed with the response, not just from fellow researchers but also from parents wanting to explore this new area with their kids. They will also present the Darwin Toolbox at the iGEM competition in Boston.
Typical of this new dynamic and expanded idea of science, Boeing has created a student society which draws in people from disciplines beyond the core biology in projects such as iGEM, from areas such as design and computer science. “I have managed to get my Master’s thesis to have as much synthetic biology as a computer science degree can possibly handle. I think synthetic biology is often seen as a mix, a new field created by interdisciplinary invasions. So it’s the invasion of computer science and electronic engineering into biotechnology.”
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