Biotech Revolution must start with Education

Popular media coverage of biotechnology is saturated with talk of “revolution” — the time when genetic engineering, synthetic biology, and personalized medicine will change our lives in more ways than we can imagine.  These technologies, we are assured, are right around the corner.  But having heard such promises for well over a decade, I find myself asking:

Are we there yet?

In the past few decades, biology and medicine have overcome problems previously thought insurmountable. But in a world where we expect the exponential progress predicted by Moore’s Law, is biotechnology living up to the name “revolution”?

I think it has a way to go.

From synthetic life to personal genomes, change is certainly coming, but the further biology research progresses, the wider the knowledge gap between the career biologists and the students, high school teachers, and everyone else.

And therein lies the problem: because of the knowledge gap, the barriers of entry to becoming a scientist continue to grow, especially in biology, where thousands of journal articles are published every year.  These barriers to entry make science intimidating.  And this turns young minds away from pursuing a career in biotech.  Furthermore, those who do pursue it don’t start learning the basics until their first or second year of college, at the earliest.  Compare this to the ease of access to the tools of a rather similar field, computer programming, where high schoolers are programming iPhone apps and starting their own web-based businesses.

Early access to education makes huge impacts on the trajectory of a student’s career choices. Because they’ve grown up surrounded by computers, kids today have no trouble imagining themselves as computer programmers. Where, then, are the biotechnologists of the next generation? If we don’t change the way that we teach and inspire tomorrow’s innovators, I worry that there may not be many. Indeed, despite the incredible potential of the field, the number of people working in biotechnology has not appreciably increased since genetic engineering was made (comparatively) easy, around 1990.

A number of apt comparisons have been drawn between computing and biotech based upon their core operating procedure: both mediums require specialized hardware to manipulate a code to give instructions to a machine.  However, biotechnology is distinguished from its sister field in two critical ways.

Computer code is standardized.  It follows nice, logical instructions that, with the right training, can be read directly.

<code>print “Hello, World!”</code> gives the computer instructions to output the symbols “Hello, World!”  It makes sense, right?

DNA is also code, consisting of thousands of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs strung together.  But we didn’t design the DNA code. Nature did. So, before we can understand what all the DNA letters mean, we have to categorize them as instructions that we can understand.

This effort started when we began giving genes names.  Saying “this is ‘Stem Cell Factor'” communicates more than presenting the information as a string of 3000 DNA letters.  Most of the genes in our genomes have names now, and many of those names tell us something about what the gene does. At the very least, this makes it easy for us to think and talk about them.

Most recently, Drew Endy, Tom Knight, and others have pioneered the BioBrick™ standard: a standardized way to turn DNA into an interpretable code.  BioBrick™ is building a repository of biological parts to catalog all of the different ‘functions’ available to biotechnologists wishing to write a program using living machines.  Widespread adoption of standardized DNA parts like BioBrick™ will make it easy for beginning engineers to take chunks of DNA code and use them to create their first machines.  Standardization of DNA code as discreet parts is the first great hurdle towards breaking biotechnology’s barrier to entry for students and young innovators.  However, there is still no equivalent of a “Hello, World!” tutorial for biotechnology.

The second big thing that differentiates computers from biotechnology is operating cost.  When you turn on a computer, all it takes to use its resources is a trickle of electricity.  In bio, however, once you’ve got your hardware, you still need plastic tubes and plates, chemicals, and wetware (the molecular tools like plasmids and enzymes used to write code with DNA).  These reagents are not reusable.  That means every time you sit down at the lab bench to code DNA, it takes money.  A huge amount of it compared to the cost of using electricity to run a computer.

Putting it all together
These two big problems, compounded by the scarcity of affordable biotechnology hardware, make it extremely difficult to get biotechnology into classrooms.  Below the college level, resources available for technology education are incredibly limited.  Even surrogate college programs, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate biology courses don’t require students to do any experiments that were invented after 1970.  The barrier to entry as of 2010 remains strong.  If this situation is allowed to continue, the progress achieved by biotechnology in the coming decades may be bleaker than most of us imagine.

Nevertheless, I see reason for hope.  If we can make a great leap forward — starting biotechnology education in high school rather than in college — the demand for inexpensive hardware and wetware will incentivize major players in science education to create affordable and engaging biotechnology laboratory experiments.  From there, incremental improvements to the educational tools available could allow research education to permeate schools at all levels.

The quantum leap
As a stakeholder in the progress of biotechnology, I wanted to do something to give biotech education a start towards making the transition from colleges to high schools. In 2008, with the help of my younger brother, a lot of high school teachers, and the tolerance of my roommates; I set up a lab in my apartment during my undergraduate years at the University of Chicago.  I spent a year and a half there building, writing, and testing a biotech education laboratory course designed to give high school students real research experience on the cheap.  Our mission: let students do a full experiment that they can get invested in, using modern-day research methods and tools to give them an understanding of the basic experiments done in biotechnology.

What we got is called “Cloning a Fluorescent Gene,” a lab course that has now been tested half-a-dozen times, most recently with 40 science teachers at Notre Dame University’s extended Research Community Institute [pictured below] . The course guides students through the fundamental experiments that make biotechnology so powerful:

•  Amplify a gene using Polymerase Chain Reaction
•  Insert that gene into a plasmid vector
•  Transform bacteria with the gene-containing plasmid
•  Grow bacteria expressing the amplified gene.

This is the same process that has been used to make human insulin, cancer drugs, genetically engineered animal models and many other important technologies.  There are lots of intricacies and extras that are added to this simple workflow later, but this set of the manipulations is at the core of modern biology.  I like to think of it as a “Hello, World!” course for biotech research.

I decided to write an article here because I need your help.  Biotech reagents and hardware are really expensive, so putting together an affordable kit has been this project’s biggest challenge.  Schools can’t afford the hardware used in biotechnology, air-displacement pipettes and PCR machines, so I bought large quantities of both and have been leasing them out to schools as part of the kit. Even so, I can’t lease the equipment out for under $300, because the cost of these machines is so extraordinarily high. I have managed to keep the cost of CAFG itself to $300, bringing the total cost for a school to perform CAFG to $600. Six hundred dollars is about $5000 less than what some schools are paying, but many schools can’t even afford the $600 to pay for CAFG.

According to many teachers, $300 total per class seems to be the magic number.  That’s just a touch over the amount that they’re currently paying for existing kits.  But to reach that price point, my team has to do some pretty radical stuff.  Since the tools we need aren’t available at the right price, we’re going to have to make our own.

•  To make equipment affordable, we have to make fully functional, inexpensive replicas of the hardware.  We’ve been inspired by the success of MakerBot, LumenLab, and fellow biotech hackers like Pearl Biotech and more recently OpenPCR, to use an open source model to keep costs down.  We’re looking for some alpha testers for our 96-well open source thermal cycler, designed to be inexpensive easy to use, and incredibly functional.

•  Reagents are expensive.  We are going to need to manufacture our own in order to make the kits affordable.  Thankfully, I have experience creating reagents while working in academic research labs.   Unfortunately, it requires better equipment and facilities than I can comfortably fit in my apartment lab.

•  We need an economy of scale.  At $300, we’d currently be losing money on every kit that we send out.  But if we can buy enough equipment, and put together enough kits at a time, then the $300 price point becomes more and more attainable.

Shameless Plug
Demonstrating that biotechnology research can be affordable to schools with tremendously limited budgets is the first step towards changing education standards to include advanced experimental biology at the high school level, which will reduce biotechnology’s barrier to entry.  This is my first publication presenting the full picture of what we’re trying to do.  Now that you’ve taken the time to read it all (thanks for making it this far), there’s an opportunity for you to help us get this project off the ground. Send a letter or email to your local high school principal, school district superintendent, or science teacher.  Help us bring biotech into a school in your community by sending us an email:

The biotech industry is certainly progressing, but not expanding. If we are going to bring about the many future wonders predicted by tech enthusiasts, we need to get today’s students excited about the power of biotechnology.  That means getting the tools into students’ hands as early as possible.  Any revolution in biotechnology must begin with education.

See Also

Adventures in Synthetic Biology

Why DIY Bio?

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