Tuesday, July 7, 2009

School of Video Games

Hello, my name is Patrick King, and I am one of four students at iGEM Calgary working on a very unique subproject this year: creating an educational environment for synthetic biology in Second Life.

Second Life is an online, virtual world, where every object, costume, creature, and patch of land is designed by the world's inhabitants. It is a 3D chat engine, a videogame platform, a virtual reality, and an online classroom all rolled into one. It's a fascinating place, an internet search or two will reveal the variety of creations and experiences to be had there. Access to Second Life is free, create a free account at their website, download the client, and you're ready to go.

iGEM is the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition. It is an annual contest of scientific skill between teams of undergraduates at universities around the world, to engineer the most useful and most interesting organisms around. I can't sum up all of iGEM in this space, but for the unfamiliar, the official introduction is a great place to start.

So what does iGEM have to do with Second Life? Well, the problem with doing an iGEM project at university is this: sooner or later all of the students graduate. Even those who decide to participate in an iGEM team several years in a row (those poor souls!) have to get on with their lives sooner or later. The result is that a huge amount of time is spent educating the new year of students, and this problem can be especially acute for teams of entirely undergraduates like ours. Many of our students are in their first or second year, many have never been in a molecular biology lab before, and they've got to learn all the ropes if they want to have a hope of competing at iGEM level.

Ultimately, all this time spent training the next generation will pay off (we hope!) with a generation of new scientists, the synthetic biologists. But for right now, we really just need to get all the cloning and biobrick assembly and system tests and a dozen other kinds of work done by the end of summer.

An educational area in Second Life offered by Nature Publishing Group

Enter Second Life. SL has gained a lot of attention for its potential as an educational platform. The most often touted feature is that SL can offer a classroom-like environment for people at any distance from one another. While the iGEM Calgary island will make an excellent hangout for idle igemmers the world over, our focus is less on creating a classroom, and more on presenting concepts directly. We want to make it easier for new students to grasp the basics of synthetic biology by making it accessible and interactive. This is where SL's object creation and scripting facilities come into play: we can create anything we want, from molecules to cells to lab equipment, and then make it behave like the real thing.

For example, take one of the Second Life subprojects: the Biobrick Simulator (provisional title). The goal of the simulator is to represent a number of commonly used biobrick types by simulating the actions of single molecules. In Second Life, you won't read about RNA polymerase in your textbook, or hear about it in lecture, or click buttons on a flash animation. You will grab an RNAP molecule floating in front of you, and bring it to the promoter region on the DNA also floating before you, and watch it create an mRNA and pop off at the terminator. Unless you drag the RNAP to some DNA that doesn't happen to be a promoter, or move it perhaps to a promoter with a repressor complex attached. Then it won't do anything at all. Simple!

The Biobrick Simulator is my pet project, I will be posting more about it in the future. I plan to have examples for the visitor drawn from the real world, including classical systems like the Lac operon and the Tetracycline resistance operon, and synthetic systems like the repressilator, and the bistable switch (and many, many other systems). The main event will be the ability to assemble your own genetic circuit from scratch, and see how it works!

You've already heard from Mandy a little about the virtual lab that is also under construction, next week we'll give an introduction to the third and final subproject: the Synthetic Domain (name also tentative!). It seems quite unlikely that SL will replace traditional instruction, but the power of learning by doing is enormous. Putting some smart students together in a lab with a few biological reagents is the basis of the iGEM competition, after all.

My number one goal for this project is for it to be useful to others, especially early university or high school students just beginning with iGEM, but also biology students in general, and the public. For it to be useful, it must be used; feedback on the accuracy of our work is essential! I hope that Lindsay Island will be open to the public near the end of the summer, but the real test will not come until iGEM
2010, when we will meet our first batch of fresh students.

1 comment:

Adam said...

This sounds cool, Patrick. Good luck!

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