MIT and Northwestern University researchers have developed educational kits to introduce biological concepts to kids. The kits allow their users to perform basic experiments with DNA to produce scents, glowing proteins, and other easily observable outcomes.
Called BioBits kits, it’s hoped that they are used in classrooms to bring alive key concepts about DNA, such as how it is translated into proteins. “Our vision is that these kits will serve as a creative outlet for young individuals, and show them that biology can be a design platform,” says James Collins, the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science in MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Department of Biological Engineering.
“The time is right for creating educational kits that could be utilized in classrooms or in the home, to introduce young folks as well as adults who want to be retrained in biotech, to the technologies that underpin synthetic biology and biotechnology.” The kits are inexpensive and shelf-stable as instead of living cells they contain freeze-dried cellular components that make them accessible to schools, no matter their science facilities.
"Synthetic biology is a technology for the 21st century, and these ‘just add water’ kits are poised to transform synthetic biology education. Indeed, BioBits kits are user-friendly, engage the senses in a fun and exciting way, and reduce biosafety concerns,” says Michael Jewett, the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, and co-director of the Center for Synthetic Biology at Northwestern University, who led the research team with Collins.
Kits born out of lab breakthrough
The kits were made possible after years of work by Collins’ lab to develop a way to extract and freeze-dry the molecular machinery needed to translate DNA into proteins. The result is freeze-dried pellets, which ‘contain dozens of enzymes and other molecules extracted from cells’, these freeze-dried samples can be stored at room temperature.
Once water is added to them the pellets begin producing proteins encoded by the DNA. This breakthrough then led to the development of the educational biology kits that the lab team hope will inspire high-school students.
“I fell in love with biology in high school, but I never really truly understood the biological concepts until college, when I started working in a research lab and actually doing all the real experiments,” says Huang, who took on the project after joining Collins’ lab a few years ago.
Kids can experience a real-life lab without cost or fuss
“The intent of this project was to find a way to bring these laboratory experiments into a non-laboratory setting in an easy-to-do and cheap way.” Many basic science kits exist, designed with the same intention to get children and teens having satisfying and exciting science experiences, but lack a low-cost equivalent for biology.
The kits were tested in schools in Chicago and returned great results. “Seeing the students’ and teachers’ results, which showed that a first-time user could run the BioBits Bright labs successfully, was when it started to become real,” Stark says.
“That data gives us evidence that these kits have the potential to significantly expand the kinds of hands-on biology activities that are possible in classrooms or other non-lab settings.”
The kits will continue to be developed, with more experiments and complexities added as the project grows.