by Cigdem Selli & Alazne Dominguez
Midlothian Science Festival, held in the area of Midlothian just outside of Edinburgh, was a two week long festival in October hosting a range of science activities, events and lots of fun for all the family.
Our activity titled “Decoding and Designing” brought the concepts of Bioinformatics and Synthetic Biology to kids. Those are two abstract terms which sound difficult to comprehend and communicate. In fact, they are increasingly a part of everyday life, although maybe not everyone will have come across them…yet!
Bioinformatics and Synthetic Biology are relatively new fields of research. Bioinformatics is a scientific discipline that interprets big biological data. Our body contains lots of information, almost like a big book. We are learning its language and have started to read the book that is the human body, but it is not always easy to know what the story is or even who the main characters are. This is where bioinformatics comes into the story. It helps scientists to see the big picture and understand the information in our bodies. Using a computer and complex formulas, bioinformaticians discover the hidden patterns and valuable information within.
When it comes to the design, re-design and building of the information, we have Synthetic Biology to help us assemble pieces of this text that we have started to read and understand. We can do it by combining parts called ‘biobricks’ to form large pieces of information and build novel biological systems in living cells. In this way, we can make cells produce things we are interested in for example essences, medicines or biofuels. Also, we can modify the genetic information of the cells to behave in ways they wouldn’t normally do. The possibilities are endless!
In our interactive activity, we used yoga blocks in four colours representing the four nucleotides in the DNA. Kids were briefly introduced with the main concepts such as the cell, nucleus, DNA and nucleotides.
Then, they build a tower (representing a DNA sequence) with the blocks, being provided with written instructions to guide them through. What the DNA sequence means, was discovered with the help of guides (bioinformatics). Afterwards, they had the freedom to choose and build a new DNA sequence corresponding to a bio product generated using synthetic biology, such as insulin, flavours, or spider silk. It was fun for everyone involved. Next time, please do come and join us!
We engaged with the kids at two events, “Science Alive Gala Day” and “Computer Festival”. Families with children aged 5-11 were the main audience of the events. We interacted more than 94 kids based on the Polaroid photos we have taken.
A total of 301 people attended the Gala Day. A total of 38 feedback forms were filled in from the public. Overall feedback was very good showing that the majority enjoyed the activities. In addition to the feedback forms, a total of 59 people rated the event. The average overall rating of the event was 4.8 (0-5 scale).
Dr. Cigdem Selli, a pharmacist & pharmacologist with bioinformatics skills, is a postdoctoral research fellow at The Queen’s Medical Research Institute, The University of Edinburgh. She currently works on an ERC-funded project to investigate the role of tumour microenvironment particularly tumour-associated macrophages in metastatic hormone-refractory prostate cancer.
Alazne Dominguez is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh in Jamie Davie’s lab and part of the UK centre for mammalian synthetic biology since July 2015. Her research activities have been focused on controlling transgene expression in mammalian cell trough different mechanisms and on recreating patterns by engineering multicellular organization.