Democratizing Synthetic Biology @ The Media Lab

Andres Rico

The past few years have seen the field of synthetic biology (SynBio) mature and expand at a notable pace. The diverse backgrounds joining the field have contributed greatly to the advancements that are already affecting our everyday lives in ways that we might not even realize or expect. From bio-wearable systems for monitoring our health to custom-grown bone implants, low-cost fluid-handling robots, DNA hard drives, grown furniture, and city-scale biosensors, we are only beginning to see the tip of the iceberg! In the upcoming years, engineered living systems will become as ubiquitous as smart devices have become over the last decade. It is this vibrancy within the field that has captivated my interest and imagination.

I came into the Media Lab as a student in the City Science group with a background in robotics and artificial intelligence. My current work is focused on developing open source and community-based sensor systems. I use these systems for understanding human impact and behavior across multiple scales within the city. I’ve always felt that if we want to make our technologies as sustainable as our great challenges require, we need to not only be inspired by biology but embrace it as the cornerstone to our systems. Nature has evolved unique mechanisms for millions of years. It is essential to understand and use these mechanisms in order to create living environments for people that are more humane and able to interact sustainably with the natural environment.

With this in mind, I’ve spent some time at the Media Lab understanding ways in which I can incorporate synthetic biology into my research and into the vision that my group has for future urban spaces. In addition, I’ve come to realize that as we develop any technology, we must look into ways in which we can democratize not only its use and impact but also its development. These were all driving forces that steered me into taking the How To Grow (Almost) Anything course led by David Kong, Joseph Jacobson, and George Church. The course stood out to me as a unique opportunity to learn about the key technical and social aspects of SynBio. 

This year's HTGAA course was a special one in many senses. The course was a 13-week journey that covered state-of-the-art SynBio research. As the course had an online format, it was open for students not only from MIT and Harvard, but from all around the world. The result was a unique classroom with the most fascinating mix of students I’ve ever shared a course with. We covered topics like protein design, next-generation gene synthesis, genome engineering, bioprinting, microfluidics, bioproduction, and genetic circuits, amongst others. (Check out the full course outline here!). Our learning included world-class guest lectures, expert-led discussions, and a mix of computational and practical weekly assignments. 

While I expected a thrilling course that would take me out of my comfort zone and give me new perspectives and skills for the work I currently do, I also found clear paths to take towards democratizing SynBio development, thus adding a new lens to my focus on enabling communities to build, manage, and directly benefit from their sensing infrastructure. I mentioned lectures, discussions, and assignments as the key ingredients for this class; below, I describe what made each of these common ingredients unique. 

First, lectures. Each subject was taught by a leader in the area. Sometimes we had presentations from powerhouse academics; at other times founders and CEOs would give us insights into how industry is scaling the remarkable research coming out of university labs. It's not often that a course can navigate different layers of abstraction adequately, giving students the opportunity to examine both the technical and social aspects of a given technology. Lectures allowed us to understand low-level, carbon-based molecule interactions, as well as how the leading open source fluid-handling robot was deployed to accelerate testing during the Covid-19 pandemic. All lectures were free to access and recorded for future viewings. Imagine any student anywhere in the world with an interest in a SynBio topic being able to join and interact with live lectures given by the frontrunners in the field! Below is an image with all of the great guest speakers and lecturers that were present in the class. 

Secondly, discussions. All of the lectures began with a discussion about what we had learned from the past week’s lectures and assignments, facilitated by the same experts who had given the lectures. Discussions allowed students to engage with experts as well as with the work being done by classmates all over the world. Peers were using the same knowledge and applying it to projects that ranged from open source microfluidics to art installations and low-cost, cell-free diagnostics. In a way, the value of the discussion didn’t flow from the experts alone—it was crowdsourced from the participants. In other words, knowledge was created and communicated because of, and for, the community of students and experts engaged in the discussions. One of the most common criticisms of online learning is that, too often, the communication is inherently one-way. In this course, however, open and live discussions with experts and peers fostered a multi-channel learning community. As a new entrant to the field, I definitely felt that the direct feedback from peers and professors accelerated my learning curves.

Finally, I want to talk about the assignments, which took the course way ahead of the curve in terms of thinking about ways to make SynBio, along with its crucial hands-on, wet lab-based components, available to a broader audience. Assignments were composed of a mixture of computational and hands-on activities that allowed students to engage with SynBio through making, or better-said, growing. Foldscope, BioBits, Benchling, PyMol, and the Opentrons robot were all used to bring the lab to the students’ homes or, in some special cases, to bring students into the lab, as was the case with the remote operation of the Opentrons robot system. I’ve attached some images I took of some of the assignments and projects that me and my peers did for the class below. 

The kits allowed students to engage with the central aspects of synthetic biology, including protein folding algorithms, lycopene production, imaging and measurements, and elemental processes like isolating and amplifying DNA fragments, Gibson assemblies, and cell transformations. The combination of kits and tools gives a clear outline for how SynBio education and development can be further democratized in the future. Low-cost kits can be distributed to students, and processes that rely on heavy and expensive machinery can be conducted via remote lab presence aided by robotics. Remote operation of a wet lab is an amazing way to start decentralizing expensive and complex biological experimentation. It is an exciting time to be building with bio. Below is the setup that we used for our remote wet lab experiments guided by a robot!

What I cannot create, I do not understand.” 

- Richard Feynman

It is through making and creation that I have discovered my most important learning cycles and gained the deepest knowledge about specific topics. Richard Feynman’s words resonate with me almost every day that I spend tinkering and building with new electronics, software libraries, materials, and now with living organisms. With my background in robotics, it is easy for me to see the great strides that open source electronics and software have made towards societal empowerment and scientific advancement. It is delightful to see that the SynBio community is building on top of the same values and, in many ways, pushing them further forward. 

Synthetic biology will bring some of the most powerful scientific and technological advances, and consequent social and economic changes, that we have seen since the creation of the internet. However, its practice and implementation can be non-trivial and resource intensive. The advances in the field need to be balanced by equal strides in its democratization. This will  ensure that SynBio does not become a black box technology that only a few control and understand. The more people who can use it and understand the tools of SynBio, the safer and more beneficial it will be to society as a whole. Bio-electromechanical sensing infrastructure, living buildings, low-cost, ultra-personalized healthcare, hyperlocal food systems, bacteria-based displays…As (Almost) anyone grows (Almost) anything, I cannot wait to see what a biologically empowered society will be able to create! 

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