Team:UNIK Copenhagen/Lego is it good or bad



In synthetic biology, biological parts are used to design and construct novel biological devices and systems or re-design already naturally existing ones. These biological parts - or biological building blocks - are often addressed as BioBricks. According to iGEM, a BioBrick is a “standard interchangeable part” i.e. BioBrick is a standardized DNA sequence that have a defined structure and function. Information about the BioBricks is kept in the Registry catalogue from where they also can be ordered.

BioBricks can be inserted into e.g. a plasmid and then incorporated into an organism such as E.coli or S.cerevisiae, thereby forming a biological system. The BioBricks are composable, hence they can be assembled in any desired order to form complex systems.

We have chosen Lego to illustrate the concept of BioBricks; that multiple biological parts can be put together in different ways to construct a novel device or system. However, the idea of using Lego bricks as an illustration for BioBricks is not new. In general, Lego is used to show that bricks can be put together to form a construction. On our wiki, we use the Lego model on several levels. First, on sequence level to illustrate that our genes consist of different parts. Second, on protein level to illustrate that we have created a new device and last on organism level to show that a system has been constructed. We are using several levels, not only to communicate our product but also to show how we get to it; the process from the DNA sequence to the final system. In addition, the antibody-antgen interaction can be illustrated with the key-and-lock system used to build a Lego construction.

Simplified models and metaphors are helpful tools to present complex science, breaking the complexity down to an easy-to-understand level. But choosing a model such as Lego, one should be careful of how to present it. Lego bricks are (most often) related to child’s play. Therefore when using Lego as an illustration, it is important at the same time to show that scientist are not playing around for fun in the lab. The goal of synthetic biology is to obtain new functions for useful purposes.

To be in the brick analogy then the Registry can be seen as a genetic building set allowing scientist to create countless combinations of new gene arrangements that can be evaluated, like Lego bricks can be put in countless combinations. An issue concerning the metaphor of “bricks” is that it is mechanic in contrast to the complex and dynamic biology. The scientist is working with living objects - not static ones. One should keep in mind that the BioBricks are not like Lego bricks; they are biological parts and they should be handled with care and respect nature.

We have thought a lot about these issues in our preparation of our wiki and outreach program. We want to present our project and synthetic biology in general in a way that people will understand and remember; still we want it to be scientific. It is not easy to find the narrow balance between fun and seriousness, but we hope that you like the Lego theme and find it suitable for illustrating synthetic biology and our project.