Interview with the Biobulb Team

Still can’t decide whether or not to support the Biobulb Team? Well, I had the chance to ask two of the members of the team some questions about their project and their thoughts on Synthetic  Biology. Alexandra Cohn (Referred in the interview as AC) is a Junior at the University of Wisconsin – Madison studying Genetics and Philosophy. Michael Zaiken (MZ) is a Junior also at the UW, studying Biochemistry (the third member is AnaElise Beckman, a Junior studying Anthropology and Neurobiology). After reading through this interview, I’m sure you will be motivated to do something to help the team out!

How did you come up with the idea?

AC: Well, first we were introduced to the idea of becoming Frontier Fellows at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. One of our professors, Irwin Goldman, sent out an email about the program and offered to meet with students to discuss ideas and help students form teams. So, Ana and I went to the meeting, where we found Michael. We spent a while discussing ideas as a team and eventually decided on something involving synthetic biology. Michael has worked with genetically modified bacteria before, and so his past experiences provided us with a good starting point. Ana and I were much less familiar with the subject and asked Michael tons of questions about it that led us to on Michael’s original idea of a closed chamber which would contain bacteria that would be genetically engineered to bioluminesce. After we were chosen to be Frontier Fellows we spoke with multiple professors, including David Baum of the Botany Department, Ned Ruby of the Medical Microbiology and Immunology Department, and Kalin Vetsigian, an assistant professor of Bacteriology and our idea evolved into the Biobulb. We also got a lot of feedback from Kalin’s research group. So, in short, I guess it was our initial idea sparked by Michael’s past experiences, combined with support from multiple professors and researchers that led us to the Biobulb.

MZ: For me coming up with the idea was fairly straight forward. I had worked in a synthetic biology lab for around 8 or nine months last year and while there I was part of the 2012 UW Madison IGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) Competition. While there I learned the basics of synthetic biology, but what always struck me was that whenever I explained the work that I was doing to my friends or family there was an incredible amount of resistance. Nearly everyone seemed to think that there was some intrinsic danger to genetic engineering and that despite our best efforts to do otherwise, we would inevitably end up creating some kind of mutant horror or super disease–which is absurd. So when I heard about the Frontier Fellows program through one of our professors, and how when of the goals of the program was interdisciplinary collaboration, I thought that it was a good opportunity to try and address the stigma that synthetic biology seems to have. The original idea for the Biobulb was to engineer a strain of bioluminescent algae, but as we started designing the project it occurred to us that using a closed artificial ecosystem instead was both easier and provided a more thorough example of synthetic biology.

What makes your idea so unique?

AC: I think there are three main aspects of the Biobulb that, combined, make it a unique project. One is that we plan on creating a closed ecosystem. This, in and of itself, will be a challenge. But, closed ecosystems have been created before, so this alone is definitely not what makes it unique. Second, is the use of genetically engineered bioluminescent E. coli in a closed ecosystem yet, so this is part of what makes the biobulb unique. Definitely correct me if I’m wrong on that. Regardless, I think it is the third aspect of our project that makes it a new idea. And that is our main goal, which is to use the Biobulb as an educational tool. Our mission is to introduce people to idea of synthetic biology in a positive fashion, in an attempt to counteract the negative stigma that seems to be attached to the field today. The Biobulb is just an artistic representation of synthetic biology. We want to make the details of our research process very clear to people, not only so that they feel involved in our project at a more intimate level, but also so that they feel they are gaining a deeper understanding of how synthetic biology actually works. Personally, I think it’s important for everyone, not just scientists, or people who specialize in the field, to understand synthetic biology. I think that the mysteriousness of the field contributes greatly to the negative responses the field attracts and so focusing on educating people about our project at the deepest possible level could help combat this. I think the WID does a really good job of involving the public in their research and making their ideas accessible and understandable to people of most every academic background. This is something we hope to achieve with the Biobulb.

MZ: What makes the Biobulb stand out from similar previous work is that it is a combination of previously established phenomena. Specifically that it uses a closed microbial ecosystem in order to support a population of transgenic, bioluminescent E. Coli. Experiments with genetic engineering as well as engineered bioluminescence have been going on for decades, and closed ecosystems are common enough to even have commercialized in the past, however putting the two together has not been before. On top of that the goal of the Biobulb is not to make money or to jump start a business venture. The Biobulb is an educational tool, we want to use it to try and popularize synthetic biology. Projects to try and combat stigma over a scientific field are rare, and scientists themselves are not often good at explaining exactly what they do to the public. I would like to see this type of project as a way of bridging that gap, and I think that is something truly unique.

What are some obstacles or difficulties you see in completing your objective?

AC: There are tons of obstacles to overcome in completing our project. I’m sure there are many we haven’t even thought of yet. Our first obstacle is funding. We are working on ordering some of the strains we need, which will be free. But, from creating the glass bulbs in which we will contain the microbes to pipette tips–it all costs money. So, before we can even figure out all of the research obstacles we will have to overcome, we have to get the funds to be able to start researching. We hope that our status as finalists in Popular Science Magazine’s #CrowdGrant Challenge will help with this. The WID is helping immensely in attracting attention to our project and our fundraising needs. It is fun to work with RocketHub and Popular Science Magazine, but we are all very eager to be done with fund raising and begin the real challenge, which is to create the Biobulb. Our first obstacle will be to create the closed ecosystem. We are going to try to recreate a closed ecosystem created at Rockefeller University first. From here we will branch off and modify it to create the Biobulb. One main modification will be to introduce E. coli that has been genetically modified to glow. As you mentioned, getting it to glow bright enough is probably going to be our second obstacle. When we spoke with Ned Ruby, he explained that we could expect a light bright enough to read a newspaper by. This is something we are still looking into, but his response was encouraging. These are the main obstacles we plan on seeing, but I’m sure if you check in on our progress in a few months I’ll be able to list of many more we have encountered unexpectedly, and hopefully have managed to overcome!

MZ: Assuming for a minute that the Rockethub campaign goes and funding is not going to be a worry then all of the obstacles become slightly more technical in nature. For instance we plan on experimenting with different techniques to keep the genes stable for as long as possible, and we have several ideas there, but preventing mutation in the “glowing” genes in the E. Coli strain is definitely a huge technical challenge. Another would be ironing out the specifics of the ecosystem we have a couple ideas right now for different combinations of microbes and are still researching even more possibilities. This is definitely the other major technical challenge; finding the right microbes to keep the ecosystem stable.

Why are you doing this project and what are your thoughts between this intersection between Art and Technology/Science?

AC: I think every member of the team is doing this project for a few different reasons. I know that one reason Ana and I find this project especially appealing is that it gives us the opportunity to learn a lot about synthetic biology. We are also excited about gaining hands on research experience. Both of us have worked in labs before, but not on anything involving synthetic biology. I think Michael was looking forward to the opportunity to network with scientists at the WID. So far, that has been going really well. We have found that most everybody is very willing to help us in any way they can. Mainly, I think we are all very excited to have the chance to educate our peers, the greater Madison community, and anyone else we manage to reach about our project and give them a deeper understanding of this example of how synthetic biology can be used to create artistic and practical things that don’t have any foreseeable negative implications.

The intersection between art and science/technology is very important in our project. The artistic aspect of the Biobulb will hopefully gain attention, which would ideally result in more people learning about the science behind the Biobulb. I think it also helps to show that science can be beautiful in ways people generally don’t expect. Hopefully that is another appeal to our project.

MZ: I think the real reason that we are doing this project is to try and help an emerging scientific field, which is full of potential, get past a societal stigma that it really doesn’t deserve. When the average person hears about genetic engineering they jump to GM crops, or to horror films about plagues or zombies, and that is not what synthetic biology is about. It is about solving problems; creating new energy sources through enhanced biofuel production, sequestering carbon, fighting disease, curing cancer, etc.

I think that art is an effective way to get a point across, epically when conventional explanations aren’t effective. I could talk with someone for hours about how much good synthetic biology can do, and how safe the practice is, and they won’t be convinced, because they haven’t really seen it. People need something that they can hold and interact with and in the end words are not going to convince someone about how powerful this field is anywhere near as effectively as holding a whole ecosystem of engineered life in their hands.

In an ideal world, what would you like to do with the BioBulb project, would you make improvements? You are probably familiar with the Glowing Plant Kickstarter,  one of the criticisms it had was that the plants would not actually glow that brightly. How bright will your BioBulb be?

AC: I don’t know that we’ve thought about what we’d do in an ideal world. But, if we were to get more funding than expected, we would definitely expand the project. We’d like to create biobulbs in different colors and different sizes. We’d also like to experiment with using different chemicals to induce glowing. It would be very cool if, for instance, we could get the Biobulb to glow in response to heat.  I think people would enjoy a more interactive aspect to it. It might attract more attention that way. I think we’d also like to spend a lot more time and money researching ways to combat mutations in our plasmid. That’s another obstacle we would try to overcome. We will definitely work on that with whatever we have, but more resources would be very helpful in that area of our research.

I am familiar with the glowing plants project! Their success was pretty inspirational for us. It was great to learn that people are genuinely interested in this area of study and find it cool enough to support financially. I think that because their goal was to create plants bright enough to have real, practical purposes, it makes sense for people to be concerned that the plants won’t glow brightly enough. However, because we have a different project that is much more focused on education, this is less of a concern for us. If the E. coli glow enough to produce light visible to the unaided eye, we will consider it a success. The main point of the light is to attract attention. I think it’s safe to say that a brighter light will attract more attention, but a dim light will still serve our purposes. If Professor Ruby is correct, we hope our Biobulb will be bright enough to read by. If we receive more funds, some of our focus will probably shift to making an even brighter Biobulb.

MZ: I guess to get at the heart of this question, yes I would want to make improvements. For instance using different colors for the “glowing” genes, setting up special triggers, for instance so that the bulbs would only glow in the dark or in the presence of a magnetic field. Different growth scaffolding to make the interior of the bulb more interesting, or seeing if we could support multicellular life in the bulb as opposed to simply microbes. As far as concerns of brightness go, well in the end we will have to see. Some of the background research suggests that if we can get the concentrations of E. coli high enough the bulbs may be nearly as bright as a conventional light bulb. Definitely as bright as a simple glow stick or night light.

I’d like to thank Michael and Alexandra for taking the time to respond to my questions. I hope readers out there are now inspired to learn more about both the Biobulb Project and Synthetic Biology. The Funding stage ends on August 30th, so there’s still time to donate money or spread the word!

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