Grunting SynBio: Synthetic biology explained to my son

Author: Serena Marletta, PhD - Doulix Collection Manager

During the last Christmas holidays, while walking up and down on my hometown streets, I saw, on a shelf of a bookstore, a book I read when I was in high school. That book was “Racism explained to my daughter” of the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun. Although I remember very little of its narrative development, just the sight of it (from which I drew inspiration for the title of this post) sparked dozens of questions:

Is it possible to deal with complex concepts with toddlers? As belonging to the complex field of Synthetic biology, how could I explain what is my job to my 2-year old son? Can synthetic biology be understood by toddlers?

Those questions sounded like a tempting challenge to me because they required a radical change of perspective. It’s not just a matter of making a short “synbio introduction for dummies”.  It’s not neither putting yourself in someone else’s shoes (though very small ones) but also adopting a different way of representing reality. If you are asking yourself what the rationale is of trying to explain Synbio to toddlers, I will give two (personal) reasons. First, I will quote my colleague Sota : “Why not?”. Second, while explaining synbio to kids, we can agree on a simple and not simplistic vision of this rapidly growing field, deprived of high-sounding words and inspired by common life.

Over the years, many iGEM teams and Universities tried to find effective ways to engage a young audience. For kids 6 years old or above, several methods have been developed to teach synthetic biology. A very nice example is represented by Biobits, low-cost educational kits for teaching molecular and synthetic biology in K-12 classrooms created by researchers at the Wyss Institute, MIT, and Northwestern University. Two IGEM teams, the Melbourne IGEM 2014  and the Stockholm IGEM 2018 addressed children aged 4-6 (very close to my target audience) by writing books telling of microorganisms to make them familiar with basic concepts of biology.

As I need to talk with a little man aged 2, I turn for help to a real celebrity among children…Peppa Pig! Yes, I’ll try explaining the routine life of a Synthetic Biologist through Peppa Pig’s adventures.

Let’s try it!

«Peppa Pig has invited some friends to her house. They are sitting around a table, on which there are markers, boxes, and Lego bricks.

  • Suzy Sheep mostly likes designing, she uses different kinds of markers for different types of drawings.
  • Danny Dog likes playing with Legos and building many different combinations with them according to Suzy’s designs.
  • Pedro Pony likes collecting and counting to test how many pencils go into the box in front of him.

 

They work all together as a team to develop new ways to play with the objects they have.

Well, Mum also works in a team and sits at a table with other people… many people! A single table would not be enough, so they sit around different tables in other rooms (and also in other cities). Mum is more like Suzy Sheep, she likes drawing but instead of using markers and paper sheets, she uses her laptop to do it. Then, other people build what she previously has drawn, grown-ups call it “decoupling”. Building is like putting Lego bricks one on top of the other to make a castle’s tower, but sometimes you are just missing a piece to complete it. When this happens, you can always borrow the missing brick from one of your friends. You know, Lego Bricks are designed so that kids can share them, we call this “standardization”. Finally, someone puts the tower to the test, it means to see whether that combination can stand the Dragon’s attack! Both building and testing require experiments.

“What is an experiment mommy?” In the Peppa Pig’s episode “Simple Science”, Daddy Pig says that an experiment “it’s a way to find something out that we don’t know”.»

Here I strongly believe Daddy Pig was somehow quoting Drew Endy saying that “a short way of finding out what you do know and don’t know is by building”.

«Most importantly, Mum and colleagues learn something new from the performed experiments…..so that they can design newer and better drawings and fabricate new combinations of Legos.»

And you? How would you define synthetic biology to a small kid? I decided to jump on the argument as in a muddy puddle but, whatever story you decide to tell you should never forget that, as Peppa says while doing some experiments together with her friends, “Science is Fun!”… and even funnier if you say it by grunting.

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