When creating the concept, we noticed that children were curious about biology, and were often understandable of the given answers. That is why we created a podcast in which we answer questions that children asked us about biology and our work in the iGEM competition. ‘Ask Nici’ is a format in which questions about biology are answered in one to two minutes - without having to have any knowledge about biology. The episode length is aimed at the attention span of the children. Thereby, we answer various questions ranging from ‘What is DNA?’ to ‘Why do fireflies glow?’ or ‘How does a PCR test work?’. These questions are also related to the current corona pandemic and when left unanswered, can lead to uncertainty among people of every age. The fact that the questions were asked by children in primary school age shows that even they are worried or even frightened by the pandemic. By creating the ‘Ask Nici’ podcast, we contribute to the comprehension of biology and hope to support people in the process of regaining the trust in science and scientists in those difficult times.
Synthetic biology is a very complex topic and difficult to understand for young children and even adults. Therefore, we created an educational podcast ‘Ask Nici’, which answers questions asked by children. Our goal is to introduce a broader audience to synthetic biology, independent of age and prior knowledge, and show them the exciting world of science to engage with. To accomplish that, our main focus are biological questions of children’s everyday life, especially in times of the pandemic. We explain the basic concepts to give everyone the opportunity to understand the background of synthetic biology in everyone’s life. Thereby, we give examples how it can be used to help humanity in a sustainable and efficient way. We shared ‘Ask Nici’ on several platforms and integrated it in an educational program of the largest German biotechnology student association btS to engage with schools. To reach people all over the world, we created a booklet which was translated into 15 languages.
Synthetic biology is a discipline in the field of sciences at the interface between biology and engineering, which inhabits a lot of challenges as well as huge potential. The field of synthetic biology is unknown to larger parts of the population. This makes it more difficult to deal with aspects such as regulation, social acceptance and ethics.
Our goal is to introduce a broader audience to synthetic biology, independent of age and prior knowledge, and show them the exciting world of science. To accomplish that, we talk about the basic concepts of biology to give everyone the opportunity to understand the background of synthetic biology and to give examples how it can be used to help humanity in a sustainable and efficient way. Therefore, we created a project called ‘Ask Nici’.
Creating ‘Ask Nici’
When creating ‘Ask Nici’, we first planned to address children of primary school age, e.g. between six and ten years old. However, due to the current corona situation, it was not possible for us to visit children in grades 1 to 4. In order to arouse interest in science, especially in children of this age, a suitable atmosphere is necessary. Children must have the possibility to move freely, try things out and “fiddle around”. However, due to the unpredictable situation and for the protection of the children, we decided against a personal visit. During further conversations with families, we realized that not only children but also adults are interested in simple explanations. That is why we decided to develop a project from which everyone benefits from.
Accessibility and Inclusion in ‘Ask Nici’
It was important for us to make the podcast easily accessible to everyone. In addition to the distribution via our social media channels, the podcast episodes will be aired on the radio. By streaming the podcast on the radio, we reach a broad variety of people, so that every listener could be introduced to synthetic biology in a few minutes without any additional effort.
In case someone misses an episode, wants to hear it again or is not able to receive the content by audio, we also offer our podcast episodes on YouTube and Instagram with subtitles and as a booklet. Thereby, we make it accessible to everyone who wants to listen or read our ’Ask Niki’ at any time.
Not only the technical accessibility is important, also the type of presentation form is relevant to reach a broader audience. By presenting the content in two variants: by reading or by listening, we include people and children who show difficulties reading, but also include hearing impaired people. Therefore, everyone has the opportunity to engage with ‘Ask Nici’ podcast by listening or using the subtitles in the videos or the corresponding PDF file, where all questions and answers are presented in an engaging form.
We designed the ‘Ask Nici’ as a booklet in PDF format that can be easily printed out and used by parents and teachers as a reference book after the podcast, but also as an independent information source. It has been distributed to public institutions such as the city library of Bielefeld or regional youth facilities. Visitors of the library can browse through the booklet, read the answers or scan the corresponding QR code, which leads to the podcast on YouTube.
Moreover, ‘Ask Nici’ is integrated in an educational program of the largest German biotechnology student association (btS). There, students have the opportunity to develop projects such as workshops or lectures in teamwork. One of these projects is the ‘science driving licence’. This is a teaching model implemented by members of the btS, which gives students the opportunity to try out various scientific experiments themselves and thereby explore the theoretical connections in a playful way. The materials as well as instructions and worksheets are summarized compactly in a suitcase and can be easily carried out to schools all over Germany. As part of this project, ‘Ask Nici’ will be integrated into lessons and enables our goal to arouse interest in science.
Like the iGEM competition, research is an international field and biology relates to everyone. That is why we decided that ‘Ask Nici’ is a project which we do not want to present solely in German. Our first step was to create the podcast in German and in English. Going further, we cooperated with several iGEM teams around the globe who supported us by translating ‘Ask Nici’. From Chinese to Dutch and 13 more languages, to increase the accessibility, so that everyone has the opportunity to get to know biology better.
‘Ask Nici’ has already been tested by children in other countries. We were able to gain initial experience through our cooperation with TU Delft. They tested the PDF file and confirmed that a large number of the questions were also asked by children in their region. Our answers were comprehensible due to the simplicity, but still go into depth. Especially the real-life examples were useful for the understanding of the biological background.
All in all, we have developed a project that is aimed at a wide range of people. From young children to adults, from impaired people to personal preference or different nationalities, everyone gets the opportunity to learn new things and get inspired by science. We've found a way to integrate science into everyday life by answering relevant questions easily and giving people access to science without any additional effort.
We thank all the teams for collaborating with us!
Further education efforts
A day with our iGEM team
A day in the life of a scientist. Instead of doing an internship at their parents' company, the kindergarten or the city administration like many others do, pupils interested in science also have the opportunity to do their internship at universities or research institutions. Tim (18), student at a regional high school, also came up with this idea and applied at the CeBiTec and was able to gain insight into the work and everyday life of our iGEM team. Especially for students who are unsure about their way after high school graduation, this is a great way to get a real insight into studying or a profession. Instead of just learning about one profession, Tim was able to exchange experiences with students from different fields of study and different semesters and received an insight into the state of science. When Tim came to us on 03.08.2021, we introduced him to our project, explained our intention and how we are trying to implement our vision. Instead of just watching, we involved Tim in some basic lab applications. He learned the basics DNA isolation of bacterial cultivation, photometrically cell density determination and statistical evaluations. At the end of the day, he really enjoyed working with us and it definitely helped him to decide which career direction he will pursue. Especially the insight into the work of the iGEM team showed him how versatile synthetic biology is and that you can work on projects with the potential of problem solving. We would have liked to have supervised more interns or even a larger group, but this was not possible due to the current Corona pandemic. For the future, it is definitely a very good opportunity to get more young people interested in science by giving them some insights into our work as an iGEM team.
Collaboration with Eindhoven and Aachen
The iGEM teams Aachen and TU Eindhoven came up with the idea of developing a project in which children uncover chemical phenomena. In a playful way, the children should use simple basic concepts of chemistry and synthetic biology to unravel the mystery of what lies behind it and how it all works.
Since children are particularly important to us and we think that one should develop curiosity about science at a young age, we have joined in and also contributed two experiments to the teaching schedule.
The first is an experiment in which DNA is made visible from fruits, and this is done with products that you usually already have at home. A playful idea to get a picture of the abstract concept of "DNA" and to show that DNA can be found almost everywhere. In humans, animals, plants and many other organisms. It is a simple but effective way to teach children the basics of biology.
The second experiment involves red cabbage as a pH indicator. An experiment that is exciting for both young and older children. The color change alone makes it a nice experiment to explain the difference between acids and bases to children in a playful way and encourages them to test many different foods and, for example, to establish the connection between the sour taste of the lemon and the pH value of the juice.
In our own partnership with the iGEM Team Marburg and many other teams that joined our community, it was also about sharing and educating each other within the iGEM competition. Through the experience of the other teams and the invited experts, we were able to learn a lot of new things and contribute to building a community. This makes it possible to quickly exchange questions or access knowledge from now on.
Our meetings were also recorded to not only help us, but to share our knowledge and experiences with others. For this, you are welcome to visit our Phototrophs YouTube channel and listen to exciting talks on topics such as cloning or follow inspiring troubleshooting discussions.
For more information click HERE and check our phototroph community.
Another way to report on iGEM and synthetic biology was to publish an article in the journal BIOspektrum, where we could present our project and the idea behind it.
BIOspektrum is the publication organ of the Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (GBM), the Association for General and Applied Microbiology (VAAM), the Society for Genetics (GfG) and the German Society for Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology (DGPT). Through its wide range of information, the magazine reaches around 15,000 readers.
English versionWar and terror leave many traces. Besides countless lost lives, destroyed families and infrastructures, invisible dangers also remain.
Chemical weapons that were invented to harm or kill enemies and then carelessly disposed developed into ticking time bombs.
Through reactions with the environment, they can once again become a danger to humans and nature.
In Germany alone, remnants of chemical weapons are suspected in over 200 locations. However, tracking them down is difficult because both the exact location and the dangers cannot be clearly determined.
That is why we are developing a method to detect the degradation products of chemical weapons. The developed system is called P.L.A.N.T (Plant-based Ligand Activated Noxious agent Tracker). A method that is cost-effective and efficient and that makes it possible to search large areas for dangerous chemicals with minimal effort.
Our system P.L.A.N.T is a genetically modified plant that has the ability to specifically detect chemicals and indicate them visually.The intracellular signal transduction for detection occurs via a mechanism adapted from bacterial chemotaxis.
For this purpose, we designed a computer-aided periplasmic binding protein. When that protein binds to the chemical to be detected, it attaches to a fusion protein consisting of a transmembrane protein and a histidine kinase. In this way, the signal is transmitted into the cell and activates a transcription factor there. This enters the cell nucleus and induces the expression of the reporter RUBY. Betalain, the synthesis product of RUBY, causes a red color change in the plant so that the presence of the chemical weapon degradation products is visible.
P.L.A.N.T. can be easily modified in the future by replacing the receptor. This would make it possible to detect other pollutants. Thus, for a future in which GMOs could be a part of our everyday life, we want to establish a system to make the world a little safer and protect it from further invisible dangers.