Natalie Kuldell – Massachusetts Institute of Technology; BioBuilder Educational Foundation
If synthetic biology is successful, then someday cells may be as straightforward to reprogram as a computer. By thinking of cells as if they were tiny machines that might do our bidding, synthetic biologists are engineers who use the tools and materials of modern biology and Mother Nature to solve real world problems. In doing so they are changing our relationship with the living world, and their efforts raise some “complex, capacious” questions. This backgrounder considers how such questions connect to SENCER’s educational models and how they can motivate students to do the hard work of learning. The article first introduces synthetic biology by connecting it to other emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology, and through examples that illustrate the range and nature of ongoing work. Because success in the field will make biology easier to engineer, scenarios of both scientific and social concern are then imagined. For example, the backgrounder looks at deliberate biodesigns that are imagined and built without traditional scientific training or regulatory oversight. The potential for malevolent misapplication of the technology is also considered. The future imaginings are then brought back to more real and proven applications for the field, namely its application to secondary and post-secondary teaching. This current “sweet spot” for synthetic biology is shown to engender creative thinking, problem solving, evidence-based decision-making, scientific and technological literacy, communication, and collaboration.
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