There is an old saying in China, "It takes ten years to grow a tree, but a hundred years to cultivate a person", which means that it takes a long time to cultivate a sapling into a tree, while it takes more time to cultivate a person to be a talented elite, and this is a long-term process.

Life science is a subject that systematically addresses the important issues related to the characteristics of life. There is no doubt that an in-depth understanding of life science can also promote the development of physics, chemistry, and other areas. In the 1950s, the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA ushered in a new era in the study of life at the molecular level. Synthetic biology is a new branch of life science in 21 century, which has great potential for development.

On the one hand, with the rapid innovation of life science and continuous technologic breakthroughs, people's attention to life science is constantly increasing in today's rapid development. With the epidemic of COVID-19 spreading around the world, people of all ages have a deeper understanding of the micro-world. On the other hand, since life science has professional barriers and mainly focuses on microorganisms that are invisible by naked eyes, learning and exploration of biological knowledge is mainly carried out at the university laboratories, and the lessons should be taught in a more diversified form. From this point of view, our team members think that it is a necessity to popularize basic life science knowledge to students of different ages through various interesting activities.

In this year's human practice, we combined the actual learning situation of different age groups to design corresponding activities according to their education level. Through teamwork and cooperation, we hope to promote synthetic biology and some basic principles in designing gene circuits.

1. University - From a team to more students

Approximately 9,000 student will begin their new life in Sichuan University, meaning that there is a huge potential groups for boosting synbio. Taking this into consideration, We addressed a lecture to those who were interested in synbio and iGEM, so as to popularization the philosophy and basic application of synbio as well as stimulate their interesting and passion in synbio.

In this lecture, our team leader Yilong Xu introduced the concept of synbio and classic application in iGEM and SCI papers.

To import the topic of synthetic biology, he state the subject of “plant” biology, “animal” biology and “cell” biology. Then, he introduced the programmability of the genetic information and how to design and utilize it with the help of synthetic biology.

After a short introduction, he took the cases of biological figure spot and controllable embryogenesis by subtle artificial cell-to-cell signal transduction to illustrate how synbio can be used to explore and control natural phenomenon. Finally he introduced several cases in therapeutic and diagnosis, and introduce how iGEM makes difference on the boost of synbio.

Figure 1. Overview of the PowerPoint of this lecture

Figure 2. The scene of our lecture

After the seminar mentioned above, a group of students show a great interest in synbio, so we invited them to attend our winter vacation. Due to the policy on epidemic prevention, numbers of students cannot participate in offline, so we offered them an online tencent meeting.

Figure 3. The Group photo of students and instructor teachers

During this training, students were divided into different groups, and we implemented theoretical study, experiment training, brain storm and project design about foundation advance, environment, metabolic engineering and therapeutic.

Figure 4. The schedule of the intensive training

In spring, our team held a group meeting every weekend according to our winter vacation grouping. During the group meetings, each group shared the iGEM cases they read that week and learned from the excellent teams' project design, HP and experimental verification. After the group meeting, the team member will submit a summary of the iGEM cases they had read for the group leader to review and comment on the following week. Totally, the group meeting was held 5 times this semester.

Figure 5. The schedule of the group meeting

During the summer vacation, in order to gain a deeper understanding in these four fields and following up the frontal research progress. Team members were asked to read the literature of four leader scientists (Chirstopher A Voigt, Martin Fussenegger, James J. Collins and Huimin Zhao) in these four fields and submit summaries. In addition, we also pushed the corresponding literature on our WeChat official Accounts for public learning and communication.

Figure 6. WeChat push produced by team members

At the beginning of the semester, SCU-ACMA(Sichuan University-Architects Competition of Microorganism Application) which is organized by the SCU-China competition team, was held at Sichuan University.

1.5.1 Background

The name of this competition is SCU-ACMA, Sichuan University-Architects Competition of Microorganism Application. Sponsored by the College of Life Sciences of Sichuan University and organized by the iGEM Association of Sichuan University, it is an academic theoretical design competition with the purpose of broadening academic horizons and cultivating students' ability of independent scientific research. Among them, six teams were able to enter the final. After the final defense, there is one first prize, two second prizes, and three third prizes.

There are two tracks in this competition: "Natural Product biosynthesis" and "basic gene Circuit Design of synthetic Biology".

Natural products in the "natural product biosynthesis" track refer to the components or metabolites of animals, plant extracts or insects, marine organisms, and microorganisms, as well as many endogenous chemical components in human and animal bodies, which are collectively referred to as natural products, including proteins, amino acids, nucleic acids, flavonoids, antibiotics, and other naturally occurring chemical components. It covers a wide range of areas, including drugs and some industrial products. In actual production, after hundreds of years of continuous exploration and development, the technology about microorganisms biosynthesis has gradually become mature. Some difficulties have been overcome. For example, after several evolutions at the molecular level, they discovered that plant natural products play an important role in metabolism with their diverse and unique molecular structures. They not only play physiological roles such as signal transduction, nutrition, stress resistance, and defense in their hosts but also have a variety of pharmacological activities in heterologous sources, which is an important source of drug research and development.

For the "basic gene circuit design of synthetic biology" track, the popular topic in synthetic biology is to design gene circuits using various regulatory elements, so as to realize the reprogramming of gene expression in chassis organisms and to reach certain target. For example, by designing the gene circuit, we can regulate the spatio-temporal expression and activity of proteins more accurately than the constitutive expression strategy. By this means, we can further optimize the ability of host cells to express target protein.

In the process of design, we should not only have a basic understanding of the relevant elements that control gene expression but also be able to interpret the properties of these genetic elements from the perspective of modeling. In addition, it can also be designed at different levels of gene expression, such as transcription, translation, post-transcriptional regulation, post-translation processing, and so on.

1.5.2 Purpose and significance of the activity

  • This activity focuses on extending students' understanding of life science, especially synthetic biology, exploring the intersection of biology and other subjects, and also expanding the horizons of science while creating an academic atmosphere at the same time.
  • It helps students to understand the application of microorganisms in industrial production and let them experience the importance of microorganisms in our production process and daily life.
  • Through this competition, we can cultivate students' ability to innovate independently and use what they have learned to solve problems in real life, enrich students' way of learning, and provide students with a new platform for academic exchange and mutual learning.
  • We also take this opportunity to promote the iGEM competition, so that more students participate in our events and have the opportunity to learn more about the competition.

1.5.3 Activity timeline

Figure 7. Activity timeline of Sichuan University-Architects Competition of Microorganism Application

1.5.4 Scoring criteria

The weighting of each criterion

  1. Feasibility 30%
  2. Innovation 25%
  3. Completeness 25%
  4. Application prospect 10%
  5. Presentation 10%

The total score of the subject defense part is 100, and the quantitative scoring scheme is adopted.

1.5.5 Introduction to the project of the award-winning team

You can see the details of the subject in the section of attachment.

Figure 8. Sichuan University-Architects Competition of Microorganism Application

2. High School - Synthetic Biology workshop

Synthetic biology is a subject that synthesizes biological functional components, devices, and systems to produce specific biological functions in cells and organisms through targeted genetic design and modification of living organisms, and even synthetic "artificial life". Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary subject that brings together chemical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and mechanical engineering. It involves a variety of subjects such as biophysics, biochemistry, medicine, biomedical engineering, and molecular cell biology.

The research about synthetic biology research can deepen our understanding of the mechanisms of life. It provides the necessary complement to the understanding of biological systems and the mystery of the evolution of life, guides us to verify and understand the biological phenomenon, makes better use of those technologies derived from nature, moves biology from observation and discovery to construction, and creation. On the other hand, it has expanded a broader field of application, accelerated the engineering process of synthetic biological systems, and opened new ideas for pharmaceutical innovation, disease diagnosis, resource development, ecological protection, and agricultural production, etc.

To increase students' understanding of synthetic biology and cultivate their interest in cutting-edge science, we designed this exchange activity. This activity aims to help students to understand the basic knowledge of genetics and feel the charm and broad prospect of synthetic biology, as well as build up their understanding of genetic engineering and other frontier biological technologies. At the same time, we provide a chance for them to relax in stressful school life by combining study and extracurricular activities. We hope that our project will arouse the interest of students in life science and create a healthy, civilized, and interesting atmosphere.

  • Through the workshop held by the iGEM Association of Sichuan University, we hope to help students understand the basic knowledge of genetics and feel the charm and broad prospect of synthetic biology while building up their understanding of genetic engineering and other frontier biological technologies.
  • Enrich the extra curriculum activities of students. Provide a relaxing atmosphere and combine learning with studying.
  • Strengthen the general education of secondary school students in biological science experiments and enhance the interest of students from related majors in life science majors; create a healthy, civilized and enjoyable cultural atmosphere.
  • Contribute to social education while improving the social influence of Sichuan University iGEM Association.

Session 1: Understanding DNA and genes

Session 2: Designing gene circuits

  1. Introduction of the mechanism behind the production of insulin using E. coli.
  2. Introduction to the aim of iGEM.
  3. Introduction of Toehold switch: It can detect and respond to RNA by hybridization interactions.

Session 3: Explanation of synthetic biology and its practical applications

  1. Introduction to the project of SCU-China 2019: the biosynthesis of Cordycepin.
  2. The production of masks that can detect coronavirus.

Figure 9. High School - Synthetic Biology workshop

3. Middle and primary schools - Genetic material related science popularization

In 1953, Watson and Crick discovered the DNA double helix structure, ushering in the era of molecular biology and bringing the study of heredity to the molecular level, unlocking the "mystery of life" and providing a clear understanding of the composition and transmission of genetic information. In the next 50 years, molecular genetics, molecular immunology, cell biology, synthetic biology and other new disciplines have emerged. One after another, the mystery of life has been more clearly elucidated from the molecular point of view. DNA recombination technology has opened up a broad prospect for research and application by means of bioengineering.

Our team members planned this science-based exchange activity to increase primary school students' understanding of the double helix structure of DNA and cultivate their interest in life sciences. This activity aims to help primary school students understand the basics of genetics and gain a deeper insight into the function and structure of DNA through a series of explanations and games. We hope to build up their understanding of biomacromolecules, enrich the after-school cultural life of primary school students, provide a way to relax in the stressful atmosphere of the new semester, strengthen the general education of primary school students in biological experiments and enhance the interest of students in life science, create a healthy, civilized and enjoyable cultural atmosphere. At the same time to improve the social influence of the Sichuan University iGEM Association and contribute to social education.

  • To help primary school students understand the basic knowledge of genetics, the function, and structure of DNA, and build up their understanding of biological macromolecules.
  • To teach through lively activities, make children feel the charm of life science and cultivate their interest.
  • Respond positively to the requirements of the iGEM competition for scientific communication, education, and promotion of synthetic biology.

Session 1: Science videos and explanations.

Session 2: Teaching of DNA double helix origami through games to deepen primary school students' understanding of DNA double helix structure.

Session 3: Design "paper strips" with different patterns and use this to teach primary students to understand the relationship between DNA, genes, and traits.

Session 4: By repeating the games mentioned above, the information will alter in the process of playing, thus helping the students to understand "heredity" and "variation" by analogy.

Figure 10. Middle and primary schools - Genetic material related science popularization

4. Knowledge dissemination in Kindergarten - understand something about life science while playing games

《The Guide to Learning and Development for Children Aged 3 to 6》states that, "they can recognize common plants and animals, notice and discover the diversity of plants and animals around them, perceive the changes in the growth of life and their basic living conditions, and discover the adaptive relation between life’s physical characteristics, habits and their living environment". These few words explain the first impressions of nature and life for children aged 3 to 6.

In order to make kindergarten children understand life and nature better and learn life science through games, team members of SCU-China design this activity to give children a vivid and intriguing biological science experience in the form of gaming while learning.

The purpose of this scientific popularization activity is to help children understand the beauty of nature. Understanding the life cycle and ways of existence of plants and animals in nature is an important aspect of life education. Contacting with nature will help children to understand the mystery of everything, recognize the manifestation of life at different moments, guide them to perceive life and respect life, inspire them to cherish and enjoy life positively. The event also enhances the social influence of iGEM and makes our efforts to contribute to social education by enriching the life science education in early childhood education.

  • To help children understand the beauty of nature, the life cycle, and the existence of plants and animals in the natural world.
  • To help children understand how life behaves at different times, learn to perceive, respect, and respect life from it.
  • To inspire children a positive mind of cherishing and loving life.
  • Increase the social influence of iGEM and enrich the education of life science in early childhood education.

Session 1: Through self-drawn pictures, introduce the coronavirus and its mode of transmission.

Session 2: "Please do this with me", to help children learn the protective measures for coronavirus.

Session 3: Selected animals with distinctive features for picture recognition to help children recognize various amazing creatures.

Session 4: Through the explanation of base pairing and a small game of finding the correct partners, help the children to know the principle of base pairing initially.

Figure 11. Knowledge dissemination in Kindergarten - understand something about life science while playing games

5. iGEM Science Communication Activity - Application of Synthetic Biology

The repeated outbreak of the epidemic brings a lot of difficulties to our offline activities, but it also inspires us to come up with more flexible forms. Compared with offline activities, online science communication activities can cover a wider range than we previously expected. We contacted high schools all over the country to provide our recorded videos of workshops about synthetic biology.

Online activities focus on high school students, who already know some basic knowledge of biology. From the current application of synthetic biology, we explain the knowledge and significance of synthetic biology. A specific example of this presentation is the use of synthetic biology to solve the problem of straw recycling while producing commercially valuable bacterial cellulose and reducing the burden on the environment. In order to achieve this goal, we can introduce a pathway to degrade the straw to glucose in the Glucose phosphotransferase deficient strain, then the galU gene of wild-type E. coli was overexpressed causes glucose to be converted into UDP-glucose. After that, three bacterial cellulose synthase genes are used to convert UDP-glucose into bacterial cellulose. Low-temperature cellulase is used upstream, and temperature is controlled to ensure that the bacterial cellulose product is not affected. What’s more, we can try to polymerize ferulic acid and BC to further increase the added value of the product. By explaining these practical applications, we hope to help them deepen their understanding of synthetic biology and let them feel the importance of the subject to modern society and the environment.

In particular, we invited professors and teachers who teach in universities and high schools to provide suggestions for our online courses, in the hope that our online courses can achieve better results. At present, we have carried out online course experiments in schools in Chongqing, Jilin, and other areas, and got valuable feedback. Until now, we are still in contact with high schools in other regions, and the convenience of online course recording enables us to invite schools from all regions to participate in our exchange activities, so as to further promote synthetic biology and enhance the social influence of iGEM. This activity positively responds to the requirements of the iGEM competition for the exchange, education, and promotion of synthetic biology science. Through this activity, we will help more students understand the basic knowledge and broad application prospects of synthetic biology, and feel the charm of synthetic biology, and so on. We also hope that more and more high school students can join us in the future to contribute to the development of synthetic biology.

Figure 12. Online science communication activities

Figure 13. Illustrate the knowledge and significance of synthetic biology by online science communication activities

We've been traveling,
waiting for someone to be the partner of our journey,
to accompany us through a memory that no one else can replace.
And we are always on the road.

----On the Road


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