Team:Peking/Human Practices

Human Practices


Our team seeks to synthesize artificial membrane-less organelles and turn them into a multi-functional toolbox for synthetic biology based on basic phase separation principles, which is a fundamental field in condensed matter physics. Therefore, it is not really a practical application so far. Nonetheless, we certainly do not plan to be limited to the laboratory, coping with experiments and mathematical models without making a difference for society at large. At the same time, we need to learn about the demands of engineers and consumers. Thus, we conducted integrated human practice in several different ways.

Inside the iGEM community, we made statistics on the educational background and numbers of iGEMers each year in order to investigate how iGEM has been broadcasted internationally and how the field of synthetic biology has changed over the last 14 years. We noticed that the iGEM teams are becoming increasingly more diverse, which promotes the development of the iGEM community but also makes it more challenging for team members to communicate. This can also be understood as being due to more people from different disciplines, especially mathematics and physics, have devoted their work to systems and synthetic biology, which are interdisciplinary sciences needing various knowledge, while at the same time, they can feed back to enrich the individual scientific disciplines and integrated biology-based solutions for societal problems can be worked out.

We also tried to play an active part in public engagement. We communicated with people from various backgrounds at universities, in high schools, in kindergartens and on the internet. We realized that there has always been a gap between the achievements in scientific research and practical application. People from the academic world and industry often barely know each other‘s requirements. Thus, we discussed this topic in detail using fluorescence microscopy as an example.

Our human practice reinforced our team building, offering more chances for the team members to communicate and collaborate with each other. We tried to make synthetic biology accessible for as many people as possible and we expect our efforts to make a difference. Meanwhile, we’d be more glad if our work can give the synthetic biology community some inspiration. To gain a deeper understanding of biology in the 21st century, we need to integrate knowledge from various disciplines, while biology-based solutions to societal problems can influence the world more profoundly.

In the following sections, we will guide you through our human practice in detail.

Investigation of the educational background of iGEMers

Figure. 1 shows the numbers of teams per country (2007-2018)

Figure. 2A shows the number of teams in each year (2007-2018)

Figure. 2B shows the proportions of teams from
different regions in each year (2007-2018).

In 2007, only 61 teams from around the world participated in iGEM, but iGEM has now attracted more than 300 teams for three consecutive years (305 teams in 2016, 338 teams in 2017, 370 teams in 2018). Since 2015, IGEM has teams from Africa every year.

Overall, it was evident that the number of teams increased with the years. Although the teams mainly come from Asia, North America and Europe, we find more and more African and Latin American teams participating in this important event in the field of synthetic biology. We have reason to believe that the influence of iGEM in developing countries is gradually increasing.

In addition, we find that iGEM's influence in Asia, especially in the Western Pacific, is gradually increasing. Asia has become an important pillar in iGEM that cannot be ignored.

Figure. 3A shows the proportions in 2009-2013

Figure. 3B shows the proportions in 2014-2018

In the 2009-2013 track selection, ‘Foundational Research’ was among the top 3 most popular tracks in all the five years, indicating that in the early days of iGEM, many iGEM teams focused on fundamental aspects of synthetic biology. Following tracks were ‘Environment’, ‘Health’ and ‘New Applications’, occurring in the top 3 tracks for 4, 3 and 3 years, respectively, showing that environmental and health issues were also of great concern to iGEM teams.

In 2014, iGEM officially made major adjustments to the tracks, adding the resources of ‘Community labs’, ‘Hardware’, ‘Measurement’, ‘Microfluidics’, ‘Arts & Design’, and split the original ‘Food & Energy’ into ‘Energy’ and ‘Food & Nutrition’ in 2014, as well as ‘Health’ into ‘Diagnostics’ and ‘Therapeutics’ in 2016. After the adjustment, if we do not count ‘High school’ as a scientific research track, then the top 3 list is as shown in the table below.

Table. 1 Shows the top three tracks that were most popular among the participating teams in 10 years

We found that in 2009-2018, iGEM's participating teams were more concerned with the four aspects of ‘Environment’, ‘Foundational Research’, ‘Health & Medicine’, and ‘New applications’. This implies that environmental pollution and health care are still the most popular issues in the world of synthetic biology.

It is worth noting that compared with 2009, the choice of track in 2018 was more diversified, and the track of ‘Art & Design’ and other humanities and social sciences has also received attention.

Figure. 4A

Figure. 4B
Figures. 4A and Figures. 4B show the academic background of the participants

We obtained information on the participants’ academic background by analyzing the wiki of each team. It should be noted that since many teams do not introduce the academic background of the team members, we were not able to record the subject information of each individual.

Judging from the information we recorded, the number of players participating each year has gradually increased. Among them, members from Biology & Health Science accounted for the majority, followed by Multidisciplinary and Computer & Engineering. Furthermore, compared to 2007, the academic background of the contestants in 2016 was more diverse. Other than this, in addition to members of other natural sciences from mathematics, physics, chemistry, environment, etc., every year there are also members from the social sciences and humanities. We believe that iGEM is playing an increasingly important role in promoting multidisciplinary communication and promoting engineering in the field of synthetic biology.

Public Engagement

Talking to high school students

One of our team members, Guo Fuyu, went to Hutian Middle School in Huaihua, Hunan Province. He introduced systems and synthetic biology to the students and helped them with biology in high school as well. In our view, it is of fundamental significance to provide as much middle school students in second-tier cities in China as possible with access to frontier science, since quality education is definitely as important as examination-oriented education.

Guo Fuyu talking with middle school students in Hutian Middle School

According to a survey at Peking University, freshmen who have had a sense of higher education and sought for their interest in high school, get accustomed to college life and study remarkably faster than those who haven’t. We genuinely hope university students and professors across China can communicate more with high school students and help every single one find his or her interest worth pursuing their whole life as soon as possible. We especially hope that the students in second-tier cities and rural areas get the same chance of quality education as those in megacities.

From the talk, we also gained unexpected understandings of middle school students’ view on synthetic biology. Many students raised a lot of interesting questions, for example: “Can I be genetically modified to become a super warrior?” “Can I live forever?” “If I freeze my brain right after my death, can I revive?” We realized that there were strong wishes for these children to become stronger and live longer with the aid of synthetic biology, and that these questions were not easy to answer as they seemed.

Pre-school scientific education

While the idea to introduce the most cutting-edge science to children in kindergarten may sound outlandish, we can still spend a nice day with them and introduce them to science. Two of our team members did this in the kindergarten attached to Peking University. We designed a series of games with a science background: demonstrating the three phases of water, observing phase separation, constructing a 'phase separation' system with magnetic balls, and water drawing. The kids liked these games very much, which inspired us a lot.

It is a big challenge for us to tell the children about basic science, but we’re happy to see them enjoying the games which is also interesting and relaxing for us. We enjoyed the fascination with science, which can cross the boundary of age and life experience.

Kids playing marbling paint together Ouyang Xiaoyi teaching kids about three states of water

This activity made us confident about the perspective of broad-based scientific communication, and we realized the we can communicate in both a 'meaningful' and 'interesting' way, where all the participants are equal and relaxed and the conversation is much more efficient.

Documentation of Peking iGEM as enlightenment for beginners

We have built up a WeChat public platform which is a worldwide platform with billions of users for documentation, communication and popularization. To give the future iGEMers a taste of iGEM projects and help them learn the basic rudiments of synthetic biology we have reviewed the projects of Peking iGEM in the past 14 years. All these articles are rather approachable and most of them received positive feedbacks. We demonstrate here the articles and hope it may help more people who want to get to know about synthetic biology.

2007 2008
2009 2010
2011 2012
2013 2015
2016 2017

Popular video about phase separation in biology

We made a popular video about phase separation in biology to introduce it to more people studying the subject. We posted it on several websites in China and many undergraduates and graduates were introduced to phase separation through our video. We also found it necessary to communicate more about basic knowledge of different disciplines in the area of systems biology. This is arguably the best way in which people can learn about the system they work on and cooperate better with each other.

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Making low-cost experimental instruments

We found that it is an essential problem in synthetic biology to fill the gap between foundational research and practical applications. We hope that our human practice can offer some possible solutions for this problem. Taking our time and energy into consideration, we chose a minor project – the design and usage of low-cost equipment, as the main subject.

Most of the results of iGEM research have been achieved in the laboratory, but there’s a big difference between the laboratory environment and real-life use. For example, it is very common to use a microscope in the laboratory, but people rarely get access to a microscope in production, due to the significant expense it entails. Can differences like this be an impediment for the translation of laboratory achievements to industrial production? What can we do about these problems?

We talked with Professor Xu Luping from Tsinghua University, who designed a low-cost microscope that can be produced using a 3D-printer. The interviews revealed that most of the parts are easy to be obtain, and they are also not difficult to assemble. We talked about the possible applications of this kind of microscope and the probability of expanding this cheap technology to fluorescence microscopes.

Low-cost microscope transformed from a 3D printer made by Prof. Xu Luping

So far, this kind of low-cost microscope is still conceptual, and is mainly used for popular science or education, but it is still helpful to future work. From professor Xu’s point of view, realizing a possibility in engineering is of great significance in itself. This has enlightened us to summarize some abstract and modularized ‘potential properties’ in our project, apart from seeking practical applications of our bioparts.

We also realized that the main difficulty of our subject to build a low-cost fluorescence microscope lies in the cost of equipping it with a fluorescence light source. Fluorescence technology plays a significant part in synthetic biology research, but it is much too expensive for general industry. We talked about the possibility to lower the cost of fluorescence technology and think it is probably necessary to try to develop low precision and low cost fluorescence technology, especially since it has become quite common to utilize fluorescence in biotechnology.

We therefore communicated with Dr. Zong Yeqing, who showed us his self-made fluorescence stereomicroscope. A fluorescence stereomicroscope was needed in a project but there was none in the institute he works in, and it was not worthwhile to spend millions of RMB to buy one for a single project. So he built one himself. The total cost of his self-made fluorescence stereomicroscope is 1000 RMB (approx. 150 USD at the time of writing). It can be used for observation, incubation and heating. The communication with Dr. Zong Yeqing not only gave us hope for building a low-cost fluorescence instrument for production and medical research, but also reminded us of the significance of building low-cost instruments for scientific research itself.

Low-cost fluorescence stereomicroscope made by Dr. Zong Yeqing

The images under the fluorescence stereomicroscope made by Dr. Zong Yeqing