Team:SIAT-SCIE/Human Practices

1. WeChat official account: SIATxSCIE

The use of genetic technology had been an extremely controversial topic in the past decades in China, and the debate culminated around the time when genetically modified (GM) crops were about to be decided on its entry into the Chinese market, which ended up in negation due to almost unanimously negative public opinion. Some media even referred to conspiracy theory. The underlying cause of the Chinese public’s conservative bias is primarily a lack of knowledge about genetic engineering and an inherent negative preconception of it due to media influence and cultural tradition[1].
In addition, this result can be also ascribed to the absence of information on genetic engineering in China’s education. Summing these up, the topic of genetic engineering is something veiled in a mysterious haze with animosity in the Chinese public opinion. .

In order to uncover this veil, as well as for demonstrating the link between technology and society, SIAT-SCIE has opened a WeChat account for interacting with the public with the purpose of raising public awareness of the impact of synthetic biology and adapting our project to real life applications.

On the first three weeks of this year’s summer, the team editors published a total of six original articles introducing some concepts in synthetic biology and our project in a layperson manner, which, along with receiving over 1600 views in total, brought us a sense of accomplishment through readers’ active feedbacks and insightful questions.

Our articles introduce a wide range of biology concepts linked to our project, including mechanisms in bacterial communication, genetic engineering toolbox (CRISPR), and cloning techniques in simple and lucid terms. Some of our feedback to the comments and posts deliberately served to debunk some misconceptions and prejudices regarding precisely how genetic engineering is carried out — it is no witchcraft. At the end of every article, we inserted an extra survey in order to garner feedback about how well the readers have acquired an understanding of what we have explained, and how we can improve the accessibility of our articles.

In addition, we divided every article we published into three categories with each corresponds to a certain level of assumed preliminary knowledge, thus allowing people to decide to read the articles that are suitable for their preknowledge of biology. This avoids readers’ potential frustration that is consequential of having read something overly arcane and technical.

Also, the language we adopted contains, along with its lucidity, a remarkable element of humor and link to real life circumstances through the use of analogies like comparing Cas9 protein to the projectionist in the classic movie Cinema Paradiso. The structure and tone of the passage are also deliberately designed to be laconic and relaxing lest the readers may grow exhausted from reading dense phrases.

All these efforts were made to ensure that the readers find topics on genetic engineering approachable, engaging, and even conversant, and for some of them, through such friendly acquaintance with genetic engineering, they may discard their previous prejudiced view on genetic engineering and embrace a view that is a result of their own learning and judgment.
Our efforts in this undertaking may be minute considering the whole a range of people whom we can not reach, but according to some ancient bon mot, when these efforts are accumulated, they will yet have a considerable transformative power over the entire public opinion, and we believe that this is one of the missions of as a member of the iGEM community.

2. Lecture with team SMS

Through our collaboration with team SMS, we — SMS and SIAT-SCIE together — gave a lecture in the auditorium to some fifty students from Shenzhen Middle School in October the 15th, as an attempt to introduce those students early to the world of genetic engineering.

Moreover, we were expecting that this lecture would possibly inspire a few prospective bioengineers to undertake a lifelong partnership with this thrilling field of study. The session lasted for around one hour, and we gave an overview of synthetic biology, introduced each team’s project, and held a short FAQ section. For further details, please see the collaboration section.

3. Questionnaire

At the very inception of our project when the design was yet incomplete, we set out a questionnaire to gather information regarding people’s awareness and knowledge of colon cancer in China.

The questionnaire included a wide range of questions from the simple ones such as “Do you know about colon cancer?” to the more complicated ones such as “Do you know any potential causes for colon cancer?” 348 people participated in this questionnaire, ensuring that the sample size was sufficient for us to draw some conclusions. This questionnaire confirmed that there is a need in the public that our project may serve, and it was due to public’s hesitation showed in the results we realized the importance of popularising synthetic biology, which led to the opening of our WeChat account. One of our team members who was teaching the central dogma to students from SMS.

The responses are displayed below:

4. iGEM club

This year, SCIE-SIAT founded an iGEM club for SCIE students who are: prospective biologists; someone with expertise in computer science, mathematics, or other branches of natural science like chemistry and physics; or anyone simply finds the term “genetic engineering” curious and interesting. This club embraces anyone who is willing to learn about novel things, regardless of any prior background knowledge. One of our goals is to provide a stadium so that those who are more familiar with concepts in synthetic biology and can give lectures and provide some general guidances to those who are newly acquainted with synthetic biology.

The “faculty” usually consists of team members, but we also had the pleasure to invite some seniors who are to major in biological sciences in their undergraduate studies in our school to give tutelage to the club members. The club usually takes place once a week, though additional sessions are sometimes scheduled. The lectures include a wide range of topics from biochemistry to those that are more pertinent to our projects such as the central dogma and bacteriology.

We have scheduled several quizzes and one midterm test to gauge the degree of how well the club members are assimilating these new concepts, how well they are motivated, and how far they have been reading further by themselves. The results were quite satisfying and some of the club members displayed profound enthusiasm in studying biology.

However, teaching is merely one of our goals. The creation of this club is moreover intended to provide a milieu for communication between biology-aficionados, who may encourage and inspire each other through communication and cooperation.

After roughly a dozen sessions, we designed a little team project for the club members to work on. We asked them to translate the Guide to iGEM, which is made by SIATxSCIE in the previous year, to English. The guide explains some central concepts in synthetic biology such as molecular cloning and bacteriology. This assignment was intended to give them a taste of the experience of teamwork in synthetic biology. The club members successfully completed the task, and the translated materials can be shared now with more people.

5. Interview with a doctor from the local hospital

Around the end of July of 2018, SIAT-SCIE had the honor to interview Dr. Yi, an expert in the field of gastroenterology from the surgical department of Nanshan People’s Hospital, who is also the head of a department. After introducing the iGEM competition and our project to them, we discussed the safety of our project and the application of OMVs in therapeutics. He gave us some very helpful advice on how to quantify OMVs production.

Subsequently, we moved on to a topic that is more professional and pragmatic — colon cancer, its awareness, and its treatment in China. From a doctor’s perspective, he gave us invaluable information on the status quo of colon cancer in China and somewhat he considered as a dilemma in the treatment of colon cancer. Besides, they also offered us additional information on the methods of diagnosis and treatment that are most prevalently used in Chinese hospitals. Also, they mentioned some traits peculiar to Chinese patients that are the results of their experience by contacting the patients as doctors. They reported that many of the patients are extremely sensitive to words like “cancer” and often show high resistance to treatments involving operations. Indeed, in China, the idea of mortality and of one’s own body does possess elements peculiar to the Chinese culture.

Through this conversation we realized that there are not many diagnostic methods available to provide precaution against colon cancer amongst high-risk groups. We are able to contextualize our project and are more confirmed that the direction of our project may lead to making a small contribution to the current status of the treatment of colon cancer at least in China, and through employing techniques of genetic engineering, there may be new possibilities in therapeutics being opened up.

6. Safety issues over OMV-CRISPR-Cas9

We considered the safety issues of ingesting OMVs, as they may target some probiotics in human’s intestines. Therefore we consulted YiTai An, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. And he suggested that a small amount of death of probiotics would not affect the balance of gut flora. Moreover, we have BLASTed the sgRNA’s targeting sequence in the bacterial flora in the human intestine, and the result has shown that there aren’t any targeting site in probiotics.

Also, we are worried that OMVs containing Cas9 proteins may accidentally alter human’s gene, as their phospholipid components allow them to fuse with human cells’ plasma membrane. So we did more research. The result shows that there is a very low possibility of CRISPR entering the nucleus. [2] Furthermore, a recent study had found that 96% of the population have pre-immunity of CRISPR. [3]


[1] Cui, Kai, and Sharon P. Shoemaker. "Public perception of genetically-modified (GM) food: A Nationwide Chinese Consumer Study." npj Science of Food 2.1 (2018): 10./p>

[2] Mout, R., Ray, M., Yesilbag Tonga, G., Lee, Y.-W., Tay, T., Sasaki, K., & Rotello, V. M. (2017). Direct Cytosolic Delivery of CRISPR/Cas9-Ribonucleoprotein for Efficient Gene Editing. ACS Nano, 11(3), 2452–2458. doi:10.1021/acsnano.6b07600

[3] Wagner, D. L., Amini, L., Wendering, D. J., Burkhardt, L.-M., Akyüz, L., Reinke, P., … Schmueck-Henneresse, M. (2018). High prevalence of Streptococcus pyogenes Cas9-reactive T cells within the adult human population. Nature Medicine. doi:10.1038/s41591-018-0204-6