How to Grow (Almost) Anything - A New Model for Global Synthetic Biology Education

Laura Maria Gonzalez 

A Distance Learning Model for Global Laboratory-Based Synthetic Biology Education 

Synthetic Biology ( SynBio) tools hold the promise to solve global challenges such as sustainability, climate change, and infectious diseases, yet SynBio education is largely still confined to students pursuing advanced STEM degrees in highly resourced institutions. With HTG(A)A we lay out a vision for the democratization of SynBio education through a scalable distributed network model of distance learning that will be accessible globally and across disciplines and backgrounds.

Organized by the Community Biotechnology Initiative, Molecular Machines, and other researchers at the MIT Media Lab, HTG(A)A is a course that aims to equip everyone, regardless of their background, with access to cutting-edge knowledge, skills, and laboratory equipment for executing their ideas, while incorporating the latest in biosafety and bioethics. 

The foundation of the HTG(A)A approach is teaching the fundamentals of SynBio as quickly, deeply, and safely as possible through hands-on exercises and creative projects across a variety of scales and contexts.  

The class's model combines lessons, hands-on lab work and world class experts in a unique mixture that allows for students to engage and contribute within the growing SynBio field. These ideas were put into practice with a group of global and MIT students during the 2021 Spring Term and resulted in a new distance learning model for democratizing SynBio education. 

A key element in the model is the application of lab robots for distance education. At the core of the educational system is a robotic liquid handler. The robot can be directly programmed to transfer liquids and modulate temperatures, allowing students to carry out a wide range of lab protocols such as PCR, cloning, and transformation into bacterial cells.

The course curriculum covers a wide array of disciplines and skills that together compose the state-of-the-art in SynBio. A key outcome of the class is the final project. Each student produces a prototype/piece that serves as a demonstration of newly collected skills and the student’s creative agency. 

Projects covered a broad range of applications, such as an open-source, portable bioreactor for DIY biosensor testing; a microfluidic chip for nanodroplet synthesis, fabricated in Taiwan by global students; synthetically engineered bacteria to produce biological art, remotely synthesized and patterned via a lab robot (in US) by a student (in Germany); an extension lab robot module to modulate various light conditions when incubating optogenetics experiments; and more.

This method leverages the resources available at MIT to allow for hybrid hands-on SynBio experimentation for students anywhere in the world. We envision that a multi-node community-lab network will be key to enabling scalable SynBio education and development forward. 

Borrowing from lessons seen in the fields of computation and digital manufacturing, the network would be composed of multiple nodes that when combined can allow low resource communities to access state-of-the-art equipment, talents and facilities. Each node will have specific characteristics that allow the entire network to manage trade offs involving resource availability and decentralization or outreach.


We would like to gratefully acknowledge all of the faculty instructors, teaching assistants, and students who have participated in ‘How To Grow (Almost) Anything.’ We would also like to thank the MIT Biology Department, Technical Instructor Anthony Fuccione, and Senior Technical Instructor Vanessa Cheung. The course has received support from Twist Biosciences, Opentrons, Waters Corporation, Takeda, the MIT Media Lab Media Arts & Sciences Department and the Institute of Preventive Medicine, National Defense Medical Center, Taiwan.