The field of synthetic biology and gene technology is often dealt with in the media and in many cases, it does not receive in publicity that recommends the inventions and applications concerning this field of science. This might also be due to the fact that the knowledge about the functioning of general methods is not well understood among the public.

Regarding the most recent public dispute in Germany on the introduction of the TTIP (“Transatlantic Trade and Investment partnership”) between the U.S. and the EU, possible consequences were discussed in the media as well as in public. One of them being the import of genetically modified organisms in food that is provided by companies in the U.S., the discussions that arose were led rather emotionally.

On October 10th, we therefore invited 40 pupils in their final high-school grade from the Robert-Bosch-Gymnasium Wendlingen to our institute, in order to introduce this often discussed topic to them. Our intention was to convey the theoretical as well as the practical background of synthetic biology by presenting our iGEM project, and performing daily used gene technology methods together with them.

We performed an experiment to prove the existence of the cry1A(b)-gene that codes for a delta-endotoxin in the genome of GM-corn. These cry-toxins are pore-forming toxins that are produced by Bacillus thuringiensis. Their incorporation in the genome when cultivating the corn helps perish a corn parasite, the European corn borer, because of their insecticidal effects.

The day started with an introduction to our iGEM project and the achievements in synthetic biology that made it possible. Furthermore, we talked about the implications of genetically modified corn, and the techniques by which we tested our own corn samples for the existence of GM-corn.

Afterwards, the practical part began with a DNA extraction from food samples brought by the pupils (popcorn, polenta, cornmeal, etc.). The extracted DNA was then used for a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in order to amplify the cry1A(b)-gene as well as a corn specific invertase gene that helps to determine if the corn genome has actually been extracted from the samples. The PCR products were finally separated via agarose gel electrophoresis.

Another approach to show the pupils basic methods of gene technology, was a restriction digest of a plasmid that was unknown. By digesting it and separating the fragments via gel electrophoresis, they were able to identify which one out of five plasmids was provided to them.

This little quiz, and the test on the cry1A(b)-gene were well received by the pupils as they could figure out what it is like to analyze their own results and draw conclusions from that. They performed positive and negative controls, as well as a control with the invertase gene, so that in the end we could discuss together what might have gone wrong and what can be said about the corn samples. Additionally, they were excited to perform the methods like PCR and gel electrophoresis, because such experiments are usually not carried out in school. E. g. the filling of an agarose gel was very fascinating for them and led to a lot of questions concerning the theoretical background.

All in all, we hope that the pupils enjoyed this excursion to the field of synthetic biology and got a profound first impression, so that they are able to form a well-founded opinion about gene technologies.