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"Synthetic Biology Resources for Universities: Research, development and implementation of resources for teaching synthetic biology"

Final Report Summary - UNIGEMS (Synthetic Biology Resources for Universities: Research, development and implementation of resources for teaching synthetic biology)

UNIGEMS Project: Executive summary

The term ‘synthetic biology’ is used to describe several overlapping fields of research, but our research and the UNIGEMS project follows most closely the definition: ‘construction of novel genetic systems and pathways from a set of ready-made and compatible genetic parts (DNA sequences) to design organisms with desirable characteristics’. The UNIGEMS project aimed to develop resources to facilitate teaching of synthetic biology in higher education. It comprised of two equally important components: development of novel or improved parts and protocols that would allow their use in undergraduate training in synthetic biology and the Marie Curie Fellow’s training in teaching and lecturing within academic environment and his professional career management and development activities.
  During the project, we selected and tested DNA parts and protocols to be used in practical, student-driven experiments demonstrating various techniques and approaches in practical synthetic biology. We developed three experimental resources to provide a framework for teaching synthetic biology, starting from basic microbiology laboratory practice and bacterial transformation, a method of DNA assembly to create novel plasmid molecules and regulation of gene activity using ready-made parts.
In preparing the resources, we assumed that students would have little initial knowledge or experience of these techniques (for example, engineering students or first-year biology students), but also assumed that they would be supported by experienced staff with a biological or microbiological background and would have access to typical molecular biology and microbiology equipment, services and reagents (e.g. PCR machines, incubators, antibiotics). 
We tested the genetic components and protocols with undergraduates during three workshops we designed, prepared and ran at the University of Reading. 
We also developed a simplified protocol for bacterial transformation and adapted it into an experimental kit that is available from the NCBE. Its development and production allowed the Fellow to experience the challenges and approaches in product development. The NCBE has supplied more than 200 kits since April 2013, delivering practical bacterial transformation to at least 3 600 students in UK and the rest of Europe. This initial kit, while targeted as secondary schools, is based on the same method and approach we used on courses with undergraduates. We also successfully tried this protocol in numerous workshops with diverse audiences, from 10-year-old children to secondary school teachers and laboratory technicians.
We anticipate that the undergraduate resources will provide a foundation on which interested parties will be able to support their own teaching and training in synthetic biology in higher education. All the DNA sequences, as well as basic plasmid molecules that are manipulated in the resources, are available online (figshare.com) and were deposited in plasmid repositories (addgene.org). All the materials are also available from the project website (practicalsyntheticbiology.net/resources). The project has already had a considerable impact for students and staff at Reading University, inspiring the students to establish a Synthetic Biology Society and to set up the University’s first student team to participate the International Genetically Engineering Machines competition.

Contact details: Dr Jarek Bryk, NCBE, University of Reading, 2 Earley Gate, READING RG6 6AU. UK
Tel: + 44 118 9873743
Fax: + 44 118 9873743
Email: J.Bryk@reading.ac.uk
Web: http://practicalsyntheticbiology.net