As a nascent scientist, especially during the pandemic, one listens to many ludicrous discussions about the danger of Covid mRNA vaccines integrating themselves in one’s DNA or about MMR vaccines causing autism. Even though one shivers at the thought of these untenable conspiracy theories, it is still important to take fears and misunderstanding in our society seriously. We, as a scientific community, have the obligation to point out on which principles science is based. We are responsible to strengthen the belief in scientific evidence and proceeding. To achieve this goal, communication plays a major role.

Because of its huge importance for today’s society, our iGEM Team decided to engage in scientific communication on many different levels. Raising awareness of science-related topics and creating a space for critical discussion were our main goals. To achieve this, we thought about different channels of communication, especially which are suited best for which target group. We, therefore, engaged in a day of vocational orientation for children: Experiments, the idea of genetic modification, diagnostic processes, and an educating, but playful film were on the agenda. For this purpose, we prepared lots of materials, which are hopefully going to be used by future iGEM Teams. To reach out to adults interested in synthetic biology, we developed a website, including an overview about our topic, embedded in explanatory videos visualizing the steps of genetic modification and a blog, informing about the latest progress in our project as well as a critical review on synthetic biology. Furthermore, our goal was not only to reach people already interested in science. We wanted to attract attention for scientific content by uniting two worlds that could not be more different: Science and Art.

Hopefully, our efforts in scientific communication paid out, so we were able to convince people of the importance of synthetic biology in our society.

Girls’ and Boys’ Day – life concerns all of us!

What could be more important in science communication than raising the next generation of young scientists? To arouse interest in synthetic biology, our iGEM Team offered students from 8th to 12th grade to look behind the scenes of biochemical research. In cooperation with the children research center in Hamburg (SFZ Hamburg) we contributed to vocational orientation on the Girls’ and Boys’ Day. For this event, our team prepared an interactive presentation, a film about the methodical approach in genetic engineering and a pathogen diagnostic quiz as well as an experiment to emphasize the scientific workflow.

Presentation: the science of life

What defines life? In which forms do we find it on earth? And of course: Which opportunities does genetic engineering offer? As the science of life, it is the mission of biochemists to deal with precisely these questions. So what could be more suitable on a Girls‘ and Boys‘ Day than to discuss answers and ideas to these exciting questions? In our presentation the students were able to work their way from the visible, macromolecular level down to the smallest, microscopic level. We also encouraged the students to take part in a lively discussion based on the material we provided. Particularly fascinating here was the following idea: Despite the many differences we can find between animals and plants, between bacteria and humans, our composition is completely identical. Therefore, the universal code of life builds the fundament for genetic modification, to change the abilities of certain organisms with similar tools.

If you are interested in an English version of the quiz, please contact us. You’re very welcome to use the material provided by us.

Premiere: Biohackers – genetic engineering in researchers’ everyday life

On this vocational orientation day, the iGEM Team wanted to give an insight into everyday work in biochemistry. Even if the students were not allowed to visit the laboratories in person this year, they were still able to digitally experience the lab atmosphere. We managed to cooperate with the HPI (Heinrich-Pette-Institut) in Hamburg to shoot a film in their laboratories. Our 15-minute film “Biohackers” provided a brief overview of the day-to-day work in the biochemistry lab. Embedded in some fictional action scenes, in which an essential protein had to be produced to save humanity, genetic engineering methods were explained in a playful way. In this way, the iGEM-Team provided an insight into different fields of research and applications for genetically engineered organisms. Thus, the Team gave an overview of producing drugs biosynthetically to explain their research goal on the iGEM competition. But see for yourself:

Pathogen Diagnostic Quiz

During the Covid-19 pandemic the value of efficient diagnosis has been emphasized significantly. Diagnostic is of major importance for effective treatment, among other things to detect and cure infections. In our society, one comes across lots of mistrust and misunderstanding regarding scientific methods – especially during the pandemic. What we wanted to achieve was re-establishing this trust through convincing our students. And what would be more suited, than letting the students identify pathogens on their own? We gave the students a small introduction into the structure and mechanisms of invading pathogens. We also explained the mechanisms of the tests targeting specific pathogenic traits. Then, the students virtually received test results from a patient to analyse them and draw the fitting conclusions. This way, we made them understand, on which evidence diagnosis is based.

If you are interested in an English version of the quiz, please contact us. You’re very welcome to use the material provided by us.

Experiment: DNA within one’s reach

Even though the Girls’ and Boys’ Day had to take place online, the students were eager to experiment on their own. Therefore, we prepared a protocol for a DNA isolation out of tomatoes or saliva for them to do at home. We chose DNA isolation because of its importance for genetic modification. The students started with destabilizing the cell walls by means of dishwashing detergent and heat. NaCl was added to stabilize the DNA. Moreover, the students used proteases included in washing agents to degrade proteins. To separate the polar DNA from nonpolar cell residues, the students layered the detergent mixture with methylated spirit. The experiment was a great success, all students could isolate DNA strings and proudly presented them to us.

If you are interested in an English version of the quiz, please contact us. You’re very welcome to use the material provided by us.

Project overview

To visualize our scientific approach, we started with a drawing explaining the steps of biological terpenoid synthesis. This overview provided the basis for the following communication channels: videos, embedded in the drawing, to explain methods of genetic engineering. Lab galleries, stimulating the viewer’s imagination of this process. A science blog, to give an insight into our project and to critically discuss dangers and opportunities of synthetic biology.

Explanatory videos

One of the main aspects of scientific communication is explaining how experiments work and how results are generated in the lab. With our “Interactive lab” this is exactly what we wanted to achieve. To arouse interest of non-scientists, the iGEM Team Hamburg concentrated on explaining typical methods for genetic engineering in easy words. We chose to visualize the common process of genetically modifying microorganisms: Starting with identifying a gene of interest, targeting and copying this gene by PCR, creating a plasmid shuttle into a host organism, to at last express recombinant proteins or induce reaction cascades. This way, we emphasized the importance of genetic engineering by referring to multiple applications. We used “Golden Rice”, biosensors as well as the production of pharmaceuticals and biofuels as examples for the impact of synthetic biology in today’s and in future society.

© iGEM Hamburg 2021