BioBits kits are designed to be used by students and teachers with no biological training. They use simple, hands-on experiments, to teach concepts of synthetic and molecular biology. PHOTO COURTESY OF WYSS INSTITUTE AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY
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Cell-Free Technology Comes Of Age: BioBits Is Changing The Way We Teach Biology

Hundreds of AP (Advanced Placement) Biology students across eight Boston public schools could be finding a silver lining in online high school. Thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, their curriculum now includes cutting-edge, hands-on biotechnology kits that are being delivered to their doorstep.

Born from a collaboration between MIT and Northwestern University, BioBits is the latest product by miniPCR bio, which specializes in making low-cost biotech equipment for students and scientists alike. Realizing the drastic need for online methods of instruction, they partnered with Mass Insight to develop a BioBits take-home lab activity that teaches AP biology students the central dogma of biology: transcription and translation.

As schools continue to be closed, one thing is increasingly clear: online instruction is hard, not just for students, but also for educators. “They are away from their usual workplace. They only interact with the kids through screens. They have very limited opportunities for meaningful engagement and all of a sudden, you open up this little box full of biology,” says Sebastian Kraves, Co-Founder of miniPCR.

The safety and accessibility of BioBits is hard to beat. Biology is an expensive field to dabble in, but $100 is enough to provide a classroom’s worth of BioBits kits. Since there are no live organisms like bacteria, expensive equipment necessary for the most basic biology lab — freezers, incubators, and sterile tools — are no longer a limiting factor.

Freeze-dried cell extracts are shelf-stable and can ship worldwide. In the past few months, BioBits kits have been delivered to places outside the United States such as Denmark, Indonesia, and Chile – just to name a few.

Starting next year, they will even make their way to the International Space Station. MiniPCR and Boeing manage the annual Genes in Space challenge, where students will soon be able to submit BioBits experiment ideas, one of which will be selected for an astronaut to conduct on board the ISS.

While the science lesson in these kits is simple: cells make proteins from genes, it begs another question: how is this possible without the living cell itself?

“Teachers will stop me and say, wait, wait, I get transcription and translation. But tell me more about that cell-free technology. I didn’t realize you could do that,” Ally Huang recalls. She and Jessica Stark made the concept of the synthetic biology educational kit a reality during their graduate studies at MIT and Northwestern, respectively.

The core breakthrough is cell-free technology. While it has been used for applications ranging from diagnostics to manufacturing, the way it is making its way into the classroom is a subtle but important shift.

If cell-free technology is robust, safe, and cheap enough for students to tinker with, it could be “coming out of lag phase into its exponential growth of potential applications,” suggests Dr. Mike Jewett, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern.

While the field is still young, substantial effort is being made to increase diversity and equity. This could be one place where synthetic biology could truly embody the values of the twenty-first century.

“There’s really great research that shows that engagement with science early in a student’s career and in meaningful hands-on ways is a great way to get students interested in science. And so I would hope that BioBits and other hands-on activities can be implemented in schools to encourage people from all different backgrounds to pursue careers in STEM,” Jessica emphasizes.

The personal backgrounds of the eclectic team behind BioBits shows just how much of an impact access could make.

“My favorite gift as a kid was a chemistry kit that I got from my grandmother in the very early 70s,” Dr. Jim Collins reminisces. He’s now a Professor of Bioengineering at MIT.

“And as a parent of two college-age kids, both interested in science. I introduced them to the chemistry kits, I got the electronic kits, I got the robotic kits, and was really disappointed that there was nothing biological that could be acquired.”

Professor Jewett was drawn into biology through the chemistry behind living systems. Ally was fascinated by a fetal pig dissection in high school. Jessica, by the idea that tiny proteins operate every function inside a cell.

Sebastian got a copy of The Voyage of the Beagle from his grandmother at age 12. “I did not have any hands on labs. I barely had any science classes. My high school back in Argentina was very resource limited, and also very social sciences oriented. And I went on to study economics.” With BioBits, Sebastian is determined to change that narrative.

In sharp contrast to the breakneck increase in our ability to engineer biology, biology education has not changed for generations — until, perhaps, now.

I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Thank you to Desiree Ho for additional research and reporting in this article.

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John Cumbers

John Cumbers

John Cumbers is the founder of SynBioBeta. John is passionate about education and on the use and adoption of biological technologies. He has received multiple awards and grants from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences for his work in the field. John has been involved in multiple startups such as those producing food for space, microbes to extract lunar and martian resources, and hoverboards! John is an active investor through the DCVC SynBioBeta Fund and his synthetic biology syndicate on AngelList.

Desiree Ho

Desiree Ho

Desiree is an undergraduate researcher in the Arkin Lab at UC Berkeley who is inspired by science fiction and space. Beyond pursuing some combination of bioengineering and computer science, she is involved in science communication and digital design.

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