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UW Engineering Discovery Days is an annual event sponsored by the University of Washington College of Engineering and acts as an opportunity for K-12 students to explore the extensive world of engineering through the means of hands-on experience, demonstrations, presentations, as well as questions and answers. Over the two-day span of this event the campus is overflowing with young students eager to learn from undergraduates engaged across the field of engineering. The UW iGEM team took part by educating students on the basics of synthetic biology and encouraging them to be inventive in the activity we designed for them. This project was similarly presented at the Family Science Night of the Bennett Elementary School Young Scientist Week by members of the iGEM team.

We decided to show how synthetic biology can also be applied to art and design by making art with E. coli . Prior to the event, some iGEM students painted pictures onto agar plates using E. coli expressing different colors: green, red, purple, and blue. These plates were parafilmed and displayed at our table for students to take a closer look at.

A short slideshow was made to cover the very basics of how E. coli bacteria are capable of appearing different colors. We encouraged students to first recall what they understood about DNA and proteins, then we filled in the gaps on how proteins are coded by nucleotide sequences in DNA, the genetic material in cells. It was explained that proteins are the foundation of living organisms and are essential to how they look, respond to the environment, and other aspects of how they live. Once this was established, we gave them the example of proteins which possessed the function of expression of color; green proteins deriving from jellyfish while blue proteins were taken from sea anemones.

Genes coding for a protein can be taken from one organism and inserted into the DNA of another organism to express said protein in the new organism. In our case we inserted the coding for color expression from organisms like jellyfish and sea anemone into different strains of E. coli to observe several colors through the proteins that were produced.

Students were then provided a sheet of paper with a circle outlined on it to represent an agar plate and invited to come up with ideas of images that could be made from color fluorescing proteins expressed by E. coli . Piles of paper were collected and some of these drawings were chosen to be made by our iGEM students back in the lab. Pictures were taken and e-mailed out to the students so they could see their illustrations in the form of E. coli bacteria.

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