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Do"It"Yourself Biology

01/14/2009 6:00 PM Museum
Natalie Kuldell, Instructor, MIT Department; Reshma Shetty, Ph D 08

Description: Inspired by the vast potential of bioengineering, ordinary people are seeking their inner Frankenstein -- doctor, not monster. Two speakers who know their way around Petri dish and beaker discuss the possibilities and pitfalls of do"it"yourself biology with an MIT Museum crowd.

Showing ads from a 1980 Omni magazine, Natalie Kuldellreflects on the vast changes in computer engineering in the past few decades _ from 20"lb PCs to laptops and handhelds. In contrast, she laments, genetic engineering today still resembles in large part its 1980 antecedents -- inserting bits of DNA into organisms like E. coli. She avers that computer engineering made such leaps because its technology was widely available to amateurs, who helped drive many advances. Biotech hasn't moved as fast, and won't, believes a nascent do"it"yourself (DIY) community, until basic components of biology become accessible to a larger population.

Synthetic biology aims to make new biological forms easier to engineer. Kuldell complains that "much of my time is spent doing things to do the experiments I need to do. It would be terrific not to have to build things in advance." But building biological components and streamlining processes is difficult in biology, because biosystems are complex, and unpredictable. Can amateurs working with "Tupperware, thermometers and genetic engineering in the kitchen" discover "something remarkable doing their biology at home?"

Reshma Shettythinks engineered organisms can do more than sense toxic metals in the environment or determine whether seawater is contaminated. She can "imagine a DIY bioengineerdoing something more fantastical, ambitious. What about growing your own house?" Shetty describes a home experiment that can make bacteria smell like bananas. This is a small feat, but to achieve something significant, a real contribution to science, Shetty says DIY biologists need bio"engineered friendly organisms that will serve as common models, safe, easy to grow "and fun to use." Candidates include moss, an easy to grow bacterium called Acinetobacter, and the salt"loving Halobacterium. By giving people the right tools, "they can build something fun and creative others can appreciate."

About the Speaker(s): Natalie Kuldell did her doctoral and post"doctoral work at Harvard Medical School. She develops discovery"based curricula drawn from the current literature to engage undergraduate students in structured, reasonably authentic laboratory experiences. She has also written educational materials to improve scientific communication as it occurs across disciplinary boundaries and as it's taught in undergraduate subjects. Her research examines gene expression in eukaryotic cells, focusing most recently on synthetic biology and redesign of the yeast mitochondria. She serves as Associate Education Director for SynBERC, an NSF"funded research center for Synthetic Biology, and Councilor at Large for the Institute of Biological Engineering.

Reshma Shetty earned her MIT Ph.D. in Biological Engineering, where she engineered bacteria to smell like mint and banana. She has been active in the field for several years and co"organized SB1.0, the first international conference in synthetic biology in 2004. She spearheaded the use of OpenWetWare, a wiki for life science researchers, as an educational tool when she helped teach an MIT undergraduate laboratory course in synthetic biology in 2006. The course demonstrated how wiki's can support university education and has served as a model for courses from institutions across the country. She also engineered bacteria to smell like mint and banana's. Now she and four other MITers have founded a new synthetic biology startup called Ginkgo BioWorks.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, MIT Museum

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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