Team:Vilnius-Lithuania-OG/Public Engagement


Education and Public Engagement


The synthetic biology community in Lithuania is just starting to grow and we are concerned about society’s attitude towards it. Therefore, we seek to foster scientific culture and enlighten society about the benefits that new technologies can bring. We are passionate about establishing a dialogue between scientific community and general public, which in our belief is one of the factors for scientific progress.

In 2016 Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM team have set up an association “Synthetic Biology Organization” (“Sintetinės biologijos organizacija”) - SinBio - to spread knowledge about synthetic biology and educate society about its benefits. SinBio is a non-profit organization having its own governmental bodies - the board and the president (currently our team leader Laurynas Karpus) - and uniting students that are eager to contribute to the development of synthetic biology in Lithuania. For some time, the SinBio activity was slowing down but this year we have decided to revamp it in order to accelerate the growth of the synthetic biology community here in Lithuania.

Below is the new synthetic biology logo we have created this year as a symbol of the revamped organization strategy:

We believe that a public without general knowledge in synthetic biology will not be able to make informed decisions or effectively contribute to political and ethical debates in areas such as GMO or other synthetic biology topics. That said, we believe that SinBio can be one of the factors helping to drive the knowledge and engage people. However, up until now SinBio hasn’t had a clear vision on how to fulfill this task, so this year we developed a 5 year strategy with which we have set ourselves long and short term goals.

The new strategy of Synthetic Biology Organisation

After discussing our ambitions and what we would like to achieve as an organisation, we clarified SinBio vision:

A society that is enthusiastic about synthetic biology, is confident in its use, and supports people who want to be part of scientific community.

Later on, we have developed goals aligned to the vision:

1. To address the first part of our vision, we believe that for people acknowledge and become interest in synthetic biology it has to be established as an integral part of our life, providing benefits for our well-being. Of course, their possible negative aspects or dangers should also be discussed. The relevance of synthetic biology has to be demonstrated to the general public, and the solution it offers - explained.

Such public engagement should be a two-way process, enabling the public to express their interests, ideas and/or concerns, thereby helping scientists and stakeholders to innovate the synthetic biology in the right direction. We should also bring business into the picture as society more often has contact with science through products and services it uses.

We have then picked out the methods we could use to engage the public with the field of synthetic biology:

  • Participating in and organizing scientific events for the community, wherein people could get familiar with concepts of synthetic biology, its potential and benefits.

  • Collaborating with startups and mature businesses that may want to incorporate the methods or products of synthetic biology in their workflows.

  • Releasing a popular periodical newsletter on the latest accomplishments of the synthetic biology field.

These means might improve the public’s understanding the scientific expertise in ways they prefer and feeling that their opinions count resulting in overall approval of synthetic biology.

2. To raise the confidence of using and applying synthetic biology, the community has to first understand what it is. This confidence should arise from informed understanding of the processes of synthetic biology and science in general. This goal should be approached from two perspectives.

First, the general community who has limited knowledge about science principles and topics in general.

Secondly, the people from scientific community who need to expand their knowledge circle into the field of synthetic biology (e.g. life sciences students).

To acknowledge these two groups, we are going to implement different means to engage them into processes of synthetic biology:

  • Steps for familiarizing general public on scientific research concepts and means to conduct it:

    • Making a list of trusted scientific sources available to the general community and promoting it.

    • Organizing general lectures and workshops.

  • Steps for students to to understand processes behind synthetic biology:

    • Organizing in depth lectures and workshops on synthetic biology.

    • Collaborating with Vilnius University to make synthetic biology a part of study programmes.

3. The third thing we want to focus on is developing a society with qualified scientific workforce in synthetic biology. We are eager to encourage students to turn to life sciences and especially to synthetic biology. We need to ensure that next generation of scientists are well equipped with wide range of opportunities so more people would be encouraged to seek career related to synthetic biology. To achieve this goal, we not only have to fulfill the first part of our vision - to raise interest of synthetic biology in the society - but also to show specific ways in pursuing such a career. We believe that the collaborative spirit between academia and industry could help us. That said, in addition to previous actions we are planning to:

  • Establish a stakeholder map for students who are interested in synthetic biology but are not familiar with career options in the field.

  • Establish a mentoring programme for students in life sciences, wherein the academia and industry professionals would share their experience and guide students as well as their future.

The first steps

Soon after the establishment of the new strategy and goals, we have started to accomplish our short-term goals which include educating general public on synthetic biology topics. First, we have discussed the field of synthetic biology on the national radio. We talked about what the synthetic biology is, what can it bring and what are the biological and ethical concerns that people should discuss and be aware of.

Together with Microbiology Society we have hosted the first International Microorganism Day (IMD) in Lithuania. We shed some light on how we work with bacteria in the laboratory and how synthetic biology comes in the picture. Participants of the event had a chance to engage in the practical activities and lectures on how we can use microorganisms to get new biological parts and use those parts to create new complex systems. This first international Microorganism Day event in Lithuania was a lot different than the events happening all over the world as it contained a separate Synthetic Biology section.

However, educating the general public is not enough. We believe that synthetic biology introduction to Life and physical science students is an even more important thing to do, in order to spark their interest in biological engineering.

To achieve that we have established an ongoing cycle of lectures on various synthetic biology topics. The goal of this cycle was to familiarize students with the engineering concepts and how to apply them for biological design. Students have a chance to get to know successful examples of biological design and how to integrate fundamental knowledge in various areas into designing a biological system. We have already held the first 2 lectures in which many Life and Physical science have actively participated.

During the first lecture we have introduced a concept of synthetic biology as a road to biological engineering and how it can lead to achievements in medicine, material science, pharmaceuticals and similar fields. We have then discussed how we can improve and adapt nature’s systems for our needs, as well as limitations of our knowledge and how much we lack towards creating truly complex biological systems, such as artificial cells. Also, students were introduced to basic concepts of biological parts, their assembling into pathways and intentional design of novel components.

The second lecture elaborated on dynamics of biological processes, e.g. operons, their regulators, riboswitches and feedback loops. Also, we discussed recombinant DNA technology concepts, synthesis and sequencing of nucleic acids, and techniques that are important to understand before starting to engineer a biological system.

Now we are taking a short break because of Giant Jamboree after which we are coming back with the third lecture. We have prepared an overview of modelling and engineering principles which will familiarize students with the key principles of system design (modelling, simulation, verification, standardization and optimization). The main idea of this lecture is to give an understanding on how we can take separate biological parts, characterise and merge them to create a certain well-defined system. We will also discuss biological switches and design principles of biological oscillators, as well as how we can exploit naturally existing feedback systems.

The last lecture will be for reviewing all the concepts presented previously and to consider how we could design multicellular systems. We also chose a couple of papers on practical application of synthetic biology to discuss authors’ approach to planning, execution and interpretation of results. Furthermore, we are planning to address the ethical questions regarding synthetic biology, such as uncontrolled release, human or animal genetic modification or creation of artificial life.

In conclusion, this year we have decided to accelerate the spread of synthetic biology in Lithuania. We have set ourselves the goal to achieve that by revamping the Synthetic Biology Organisation. A 5 year strategy plan was developed in order to make the organization more goal oriented and efficient. Then, the strategy plan was initiated. We have redesigned the brand of SinBio in order to attract more people, participated in radio shows, hosted an international microorganism day and create a lecture cycle for Life and Physical science students. We hope that this initiative will immensely accelerate the growth of the general and professional synthetic biology community in Lithuania.