Teenage Engineering is a Swedish manufacturer of synthesizers and audio gear. For my birthday, Tomás and Felix, my youngest sons, gave me a Pocket Operator Arcade. It’s a calculator-sized, AAA-battery powered synthesizer. Pre-programmed with 16 video game sounds, 16 prebuilt patterns, and 16 sound effects, the Arcade is a simple, elegant sound maker. I’m using it for chiptunes-making (and time wasting!). It was the perfect, sweetest birthday present.
Question:What will be the synthetic biology equivalent of a PO-20?
Hemingway Editor. I usually jot these three by fives on an actual notecard, then transfer them to Hemingway for editing. Hemingway shows me what sentences are hard to read, reminds me not to write in passive voice. Plus, it tells me how readable my prose is. Usually, I aim for 6th grade but given the long, biology-related words I use, I’m usually happy for 12th.
Organism or microbe design is an emerging industry.
It’s analogous to the semi-conductor industry. Companies design and manufacture the semi-conductors found in computers, phones, cars, and televisions.
Today, end-users rarely make semi-conductors themselves. They hire the expertise and apply what is manufactured to create a product.
Organism design companies are reprograming yeast and bacteria to produce useful molecules. Those molecules are used in consumer goods, foods, medicines and industrial products.
Perhaps the best known organism company is Boston’s Ginkgo Bioworks. Sarah Zhang profiled the company this week in an article I enjoyed in The Atlantic. (We featured co-founder Jason Kelly and creative director Christina Agapakis in What’s Your Bio Strategy?)
Minecraft Chemistry. A couple of week’s ago, Microsoft added a Chemistry Set to its popular game. Since there are about 55 million people worldwide playing (and some 122 million games sold) that’s a lot of potential exposure to chemistry and crafting. What does the synthetic biology expansion kit look like?
I recently appeared on a podcast talking about messagingLAB, the work we do to translate science for specific audiences, my book What’s Your Bio Strategy?, and how life sciences companies are using the blockchain.
Despite the overwhelming need for teachers , the profession currently is looked down upon in the United States and people don’t understand that if you don’t invest in education, you’re not investing in the future. (Cynically, I understand the reason the United States doesn’t emphasize education more is that an educated populace is harder to control *cough* I mean, govern.)
It might not sound like a sexy profession, but it is a growth industry and will be for some time. By 2050, we’ll need to feed a planet of 9 billion people. And we’ll need to do it in the face of severe climate change and water shortages.
The American farmer is on average 58 years old.
This is of concern because no matter how much automation, robotics, and big data impact farming, you still need people to run those farms. Food security is an issue
So, I looked at the question a bit differently:
What would be the minimum number of people we could train to have a massive impact on jobs now and in the future?
[Digression: When we talk about creating jobs, we’re talking about creating employees. Others have pointed out, no employers wants to hire employees. Plus, most people hate their jobs. This is a big part of the issue with current job growth models. So, instead of talking about creating jobs, let’s talk about creating entrepreneurs and business owners. Luckily, this is something that Americans excel at.]
So in thinking about the answer, I thought about sectors that are currently experiencing high-growth and create value with fewer people.
Right now, biotechnology makes up nearly 3 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product. It contributes more to the US GDP than mining and utilities – and almost as much as construction.
Over the past decade, biotech grew on average more than 10 percent per year, much faster than the rest of the economy. Biotech also requires fewer people to create significant value.
If you can imagine a small team developing a valuable medicine, an industrial enzyme, or a modification to a plant – all of those are potentially worth billions of dollars.
For most people, biotech is scary  but brewing beer is not.
Brewing is biotechnology…
distilled to its simplest form (and yeah, I did intend that pun). Fermentation is the oldest form of biotechnology and we’ve been doing it for 9,000 years
A brewer takes ingredients that have little value separately – water, grain, and hops – and creates something of value. (That sounds a lot like pulling money out of thin air, which is what good entrepreneurs do.)
I can’t find the stat, but I’ve read that all Americans now live within ten miles of a microbrewery.
What are the trickle down effects?
A microbrewery employs at least a few people. They have to buy the grain and hops which someone has to grow and process that requires more people, some farmers.
For example, New York state used to be the epicenter of U.S. hop production. The industry, destroyed by mildew-related disease and Prohibition, moved West. But now, the New York hops industry is re-emerging. (It’ll take a while to make a dent in the industry, NY grow only 300 acres, while Oregon and Washington State are growing some 400,000 acres of commercial hops). The microbrew boom is driving the farming of hops.
But doesn’t that mean the market is saturated?
I don’t know much about the specific outlook for breweries but since it involved biotechnology, making the jump from brewing to fermentation would be a small leap. The next leap would be to distributed biological manufacturing.
Back in 2001, Rob Carlson described distributed biological manufacturing as means of producing many of the things we used today. That means people who are trained as brewers can easily learn to brew items that are potentially of much greater value than beer.
For example, Bolt Threads is one of three synthetic biology companies that has genetically engineered yeast to produce spider silk – one of the strongest materials created by nature. That silk can be used to produce jackets, shoes, and bulletproof vests. And those are only a few of its uses.
In 2015, Stanford researcher Christina Smolke made the news for engineering yeast to produce opioids. Today, it takes one year to produce hydrocodone from poppies that are legally grown in Tasmania. At the time there was some debate as to whether such technology would be abused, say by drug cartels. The bigger debate should probably have been how do you give access to people who have no access to painkillers. Smolke and her team started a company, Antheia, whose mission is to make and fairly provide medicines to all who need them.
It’s not a stretch to imagine brewers being able to produce very high value products very easily.
So, if you want to have a massive impact on the economy, train 500 brewers.
 I am happily married to a public school art teacher and come from a family of educators.
Melvin’s Li’l Scientist Wristwatch had a built-in DNA extractor. Melvin inserted the filthy toenail into his watch and programmed a complete extraction procedure while the Turbo Toilet 2000 chased him back through town…
As Melvin ran screaming, his watch quickly pulverized and sonicated the toenail cells, removed their membrane lipids, proteins and RNA, and purified and isolate a single strand of Mr. Krupp’s DNA.
Captain Underpants is not a name generally associated with biotechnology. Yet, this wildly successful (70 million copies sold worldwide) series of children’s novels may be the first exposure many children have to biotech. Probably, it won’t be their last.
Just a few years ago the idea that kids would interact with biotechnology might have been unthinkable: The costs associated with DNA sequencing and synthesis were astronomical and required expensive equipment and years of training. Practicing biotechnology in the classroom was literally out of reach.
However, with decreases in the cost of sequencing and synthesis outpacing Moore’s Law, and biotechnology and synthetic biology breakthroughs making the news nearly every day, it has become feasible to expose children to biotech practices. Indeed, it is essential they are exposed to and understand technologies that will play a fundamental role in solving many of the challenges the world faces today and tomorrow.
In contrast, kids are already being taught computer programming at younger and younger ages. In fact, seven EU countries including Britain, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Greece and Lithuania have set up computer programming as a stand-along subject in their primary and middle schools. Programming languages such as Scratch teach their users the same skills that professional programmers use in their jobs.
Unfortunately, until now, this type of hands-on engagement has not existed for biotechnology.
This article considers is how and why small children might be given similar opportunities, as well as the impact of doing so.
Teaching Synthetic Biology in Middle and High Schools
For the past decade, it’s become commonplace for high school students in biology and AP Biology course to use gel electrophoresis to separate DNA, RNA and proteins, and to learn how to add new genetic material to bacterial cells.
Nearly all teachers that teach the basics of genetic engineering use the same materials and teach the same set of experiments every year. Though these experiments introduce important laboratory techniques, they present a narrow range of experimental problems. In most cases, the laboratory experience ends when the experiment does and students are learning techniques rather than the inquiry or creativity that makes the practice of science exciting.
Earlier this year, Natalie Kuldell, Rachel Bernstein, Karen Ingram and Kathryn M. Hart published BioBuilder, a book-length series of open-access, modular, hands-on experiments designed to be easy to incorporate into high school classrooms and laboratories.
BioBuilder was developed at MIT in collaboration with award-winning high school teachers from across the country with the goal of teaching the foundational ideas of synthetic biology, as well as key aspects of biological engineering that researchers are using in their labs today. The aim was to enrich the way that biotechnology is being taught to middle and high school children.
Among the experiments that BioBuilder teaches are how to measure variants of an enzyme-generating genetic circuit, modeling “bacterial photography,” and building living systems that produce purple or green pigment.
The book and the experiments have been well received because are they easy to introduce into a typical high school biology curriculum (with little to no expense) and expose students to synthetic biology by teaching both science skills and the engineering-design process in the context of living systems.
High School and College Students Advance the Field at iGEM
Every year starting in 2004, high school, college and graduate students have competed in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Student teams are given a kit of Lego-like biological parts from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, work at their own schools over the summer, and design and build biological systems to solve real-world challenges. They compete in 15 tracks that now include art and design, energy labs, environment, health and medicine, and even policy and practice.
In its first year, iGEM attracted five teams of students. This year’s Giant Jamboree took over Boston’s Hynes Convention Center, attracting 260 teams of college and high school students from around the world.
In the past, teams have designed a microbe to detect and kill a fungus that has been destroying the world’s banana supply. The 2015 Grand Prize-winning team from Virgina’s College of William and Mary characterized the variability (or stochasticity) of gene expression for the most commonly used promoters in synthetic biology. Promoter regions of DNA initiate the first step of turning genomic information into proteins.
The most successful teams have even gone on to start companies based on their ideas. Among them, Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based microorganism engineering company, competed in the first iGEM and recently raised nearly $50 million.
In a 2014 New Yorker article on iGEM, co-organizer Randy Rettberg commented, “We used to say we just needed to educate people about the science… We said that if they understood it, they would accept it… [but] to create an environment where [these] students can live this future, what we really need to do is involve people.”
In a survey undertaken by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agriculture, it was found that as many as 80 percent of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA,” about the same number as support mandatory labelling of FMO foods “produced with genetic engineering.” This fundamental misunderstanding of DNA reflected a general lack of understanding of basic science. Giving children the opportunity to learn about biotechnology sooner can only be a good thing.
My father’s pool is, was, and always will be –– all skaters agree –– absurd. The pale blue surface is very hard, durable, very fast, and sentient. The coping is a great grindable bullnose. The shape is a perfect kidney, just under nine-feet deep. To ride the pool from one lip to the other across the deep end, a skater must roll no more than three seconds (I know, I’ve timed it) but to measure this distance in time is folly. It should be measured in synapses fired, neurochemicals released, DNA unwinding from histones and proteins synthesized while calculating your next move, the one you’ll make when you hit that coping.
Its name is YinYangles, not because of the Chinese philosophy of yin-yang or yin and yang which describes the interconnectedness and interdependence of the natural world. (Truthbetold, we’re not so keen on cheap Chinese knockoff paper decks and those living wheels that die much too soon. And fans of their red paper currency we are not.) No, YinYangles is some HighIQ’s joke about the mathematical reduction of the perfect transitions into evolving y-angles and it stuck much to the amusement of dumbshits who don’t understand math and nostalgize the days of lifeless petroleum-based wheels and static, concrete bowls.
Our bowl is the best in the land, every skater rips – a not-so-secret interaction of YinYangle’s intelligence with your own. At this pool every skater’s a legend – an Alva, a Burnquist, a Hawk, a Sheckler, a Way, every fan’s a teaching critic, every biohacker’s an angel investor and every punkDJ’s Kanye himself. To assure the sentient being understood the subtle energies of the sexes and the problem-solving skills of today’s vertical gene-rippers, my father’s genius was to feed the bowl the fearlessness of the male and female skaters who first skated it and the collective intelligence of the bio-engineers and genome hackers who worked in the deep end ceaselessly. Those who do not ride can bask in the glow of the bowl’s subtle energies. I was the only one who thought himself crippled.