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A new way to teach synthetic biology

Holistic approach promises to bridge disciplines to solve society’s biggest challenges
synthetic biology
Northwestern researchers including Julius Lucks have proposed a new way to teach synthetic biology that uses different levels of organization to teach core principles and a holistic view of developing sustainable synthetic biology technologies. Photo by Jason Brown

Synthetic biology combines principles from science, engineering and social science, creating emerging technologies such as alternative meats and mRNA vaccines. Because of its multidisciplinary nature, the field has a lot of “cooks in the kitchen” — something that has both helped it flourish and made it unusually difficult to create a cohesive, consistent curriculum for students at every level of study. Each discipline involved — from chemical engineering to ethics — has a unique approach to teaching and literature, which creates inconsistencies between what scientists learn.

Now, in a new Nature Communications paper, Northwestern University researchers propose a new way to teach synthetic biology that uses different levels of organization — starting at the molecular scale and growing to the societal scale — to teach core principles and a holistic view of developing sustainable synthetic biology technologies. The approach incorporates components from many disciplines, allowing people from many different backgrounds to access synthetic biology education.

“Early versions of synthetic biology courses lacked a conceptual foundation,” said lead author Julius Lucks, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and co-director of the Center for Synthetic Biology (CSB). “From an educational perspective, you saw a kind of hodgepodge depending on which department you were in. We set ourselves the challenge of trying to figure out, how can you merge all those disciplines, somehow develop a common framework and create a common language?”

“One of the biggest problems we saw in our students and labs are that they tend to be focused on a very specific problem,” said Ashty Karim, a Northwestern research assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and the paper’s first author. For example, someone looking to create a technology based on DNA editing should consider elements beyond the molecular scale — everything from how it might work in the context of the cell to how it will interact with the current healthcare system.

“These are discussions that we need to be having and might influence the science that we do,” Karim said. Karim is also the director of research at CSB and a core member of its faculty.

From this came the idea of breaking down biology into scales, akin to how most introductory biology courses present a continuum that moves from DNA to tissue to organism. There are emerging behaviors that appear at different levels of organization; society behaves differently from an organism, and so on.

Key to the proposed framework is the presence of robust ethics at each scale.

By piloting the curriculum with undergraduate and graduate students at Northwestern, the authors said they found that different core principles, like thermodynamics and kinetics, mapped onto different scales naturally. For instance, do you need to understand a principle all the time? Or can you “ignore” it up to a certain scale?

Curriculum should also be underpinned by case studies that help learners analyze how engineering choices made at one scale affect biological function at another, assemble potential solutions to global challenges across scales and identify the impact of synthetic biology on societal goals and ethical issues.

Presenting the approach to classes has been greatly successful, according to Lucks and Karim, who both said the concept “clicked” for students even the first time they taught the course. The scales concept has been so successful that in fact, the CSB uses it to organize its cutting-edge collaborative research.

The researchers hope the curriculum can be implemented more broadly and have provided resources and ideas that others may use to adapt the approach.

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