Synthetic Biology – Building with the bricks of life
The Chemikum is a MINT educational institution (Mathematics- Informatics, Natural Sciences and Technology) with a focus on chemistry. Next to a public laboratory the Chemikum also organizes experimental lectures of invited experts from different MINT research fields. Those lectures are open for all interested citizens and are also suitable for kids.
The world of microoganisms is hidden to most of us, as these organisms are so small that one cannot see them with the bare eye. The PhD students Anne Löchner, Nicolas Krink and Max Mundt from MPI and SYNMIKRO gave the visitors a glimpse into this hidden world during their experimental lecture on the 4th of February. With microscopy pictures and stuffed microbes (so called giant microbes) the three PhD students brought microorganisms to life. It was also exciting to experience how microorganisms can smell, therefore the three of them brought olfactory samples of the baker’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and the gut bacteria Escherichia coli. That microorganisms have great characteristics was shown with an experiment in which bacteria converted a chemical into a blue color. To understand, how microorganisms make use of their abilities, the composition and structure of cells was explained. The DNA contains the genetic information of all living organisms. DNA from fruits was extracted from a smoothie and made visible during the lecture.
Biology is, just like Chemistry around 100 years ago, at the transition from an analytic to a synthetic science. Already today it is possible to transfer skill from one cell type to another. Anne Löchner, Nicolas Krink and Max Mundt illustrated this by means of carrots. Carrots produce ß-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A. Especially in poor Asian countries children suffer from a lack of Vitamin A, which can lead to blindness. The genes that code for the proteins that are responsible for the production of ß-carotene can be transferred to bacteria so that these bacteria can produce this important compound. The three PhD students brought such bacteria that are strongly orange colored, like carrots.
With this example as well as with fluorescing and other colored bacteria they explained the audience the fields of genetic engineering, biotechnology and synthetic biology in a very descriptive way. They also showed examples how bacteria could help in the future with disease diagnostics or how luminescent plants could replace bedside lamps.
The audience was excited by the experimental lecture, especially the kids had a lot of fun as the topics had been demonstrated graphically and descriptively. In a subsequent Q&A session the 80 visitors showed great interest and many further questions were asked.