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Biomimetics Moves STEM Education in an Intriguing Direction

Evolution News


The Wyss Institute at Harvard is “Inspired by Nature,” as they say in their mission statement:

At the Wyss Institute, we leverage recent insights into how Nature builds, controls and manufactures to develop new engineering innovations — a new field of research we call Biologically Inspired Engineering. By emulating biological principles of self-assembly, organization and regulation, we are developing disruptive technology solutions for healthcare, energy, architecture, robotics, and manufacturing, which are translated into commercial products and therapies through formation of new startups and corporate alliances.

More focus on biological engineering, as distinct from Darwinian happenstance, can only be good. Whatever “Nature” is, it “builds, controls and manufactures” things in ways that inspire human imitation. 

We’ve mentioned the Wyss Center several times, most recently here, where we saw some of its bio-inspired engineers trying to imitate the “robust mechanical properties” of grass. The center has propelled research to the point now where they need to grow a crop of students ready to enter the field. As you often hear lamented in the news, the U.S. is lagging behind in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) which are vital to the work of biomimetics institutes such as the Wyss Center. For its latest project, therefore, Wyss joined with Northwestern University to enter the education field, designing lessons to help students grasp the concepts they will need as future scientists.

Introducing BioBits

The name of their program is “BioBits” — you can see the “coding” emphasis in the clever title, because codes are made up of bits of information. Note the mentions of design and codes in this press announcement:

The researchers designed a range of molecular experiments that can be performed using this system, and coupled each of them to a signal that the students can easily detect with their sense of sight, smell, or touch. The first, called BioBits Bright, contains six different freeze-dried DNA templates that each encode a protein that fluoresces a different color when illuminated with blue light. [Emphasis added.]

The team designed inexpensive kits to go with the curriculum. These kits give “hands-on” experience with DNA using materials that can be used with simple desktop tools like test vials and eye droppers, without the need for lab equipment that would exceed the budget of most schools. A video clip shows eager students watching how they can combine information from DNA in test tubes to make solutions glow. Wrong sequences remain dark; finely tuned correct sequences light up.

Aiming at a Desired Goal

One of two papers in Science Advances shows how students will learn that genetic information must be combined correctly to reach a desired goal.

This activity also provides the opportunity to teach students the concept of the design-build-test cycle, a common paradigm used by synthetic biologists when developing new genetic circuits. Once students choose the visual output they would like to engineer, they can design an experiment to mix fluorescent proteins in different ratios to achieve their goal. In this example, the build step would involve obtaining FD-CF pellets with the appropriate DNA concentrations. Students would then test their experimental design, evaluate the results, and iterate the process, as desired. The application of these fluorescent modules and educational demonstrations, paired with the inexpensive fluorescent imager that we developed, provides simple and cost-effective alternatives to traditional biology experiments, which are too expensive and complex to implement in an average classroom.

This paper on the “BioBits Explorer” module never mentions evolution. The second paper in Science Advances, which introduces the “BioBits Bright” module, only mentions evolution briefly, in a tangential way:

To build BioBits™ Bright, we initially designed a diverse 13-member fluorescent protein library based on existing fluorescent protein variants (Table 1) and cloned this library into the pJL1 cell-free expression vector.…The library was chosen to include red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, and blue fluorescent proteins. The selected library members represent a diversity of amino acid sequences, with sequence homology to our standard cell-free protein synthesis (CFPS) reporter, a superfolder green fluorescent protein (sfGFP) variant, ranging from 90 to 22% (fig. S1). Because of this diversity, and because many of the library members were evolved in the laboratory from naturally occurring fluorescent proteins, the fluorescent protein library could be used to teach evolution, a required subject according to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for K-12 education.

What this appears to mean is that the scientists, using intelligent design, created a library of “evolved” proteins from naturally occurring ones for their intelligently designed curriculum, and that use of their curriculum would fulfill NGSS requirements for teaching “evolution” as a required subject. But this is not Darwinian evolution! It’s guided design throughout. “Notably, these proteins represent a diversity of amino acid sequences to facilitate evolution curriculum, with between 24 and 89% amino acid sequence homology to sfGFP (fig. S1).” 

The concepts of diversity and sequence homology are valid and deserve to be included in biology class. More open to question is that bacteria became humans through a long series of mistakes and blind processes. In BioBits, students will see with their own eyes that there are limits to how far sequences can be altered. They will have to fine-tune their reagents to get them to light up.

Module I: Tunable in vitro expression of fluorescent proteins

The first laboratory module demonstrates the ability to control protein synthesis titers by varying the amount of DNA template present in FD-CF reactions, essentially limiting the in vitro transcription and translation reaction for one of its essential substrates. This activity teaches students fundamental biology and synthetic biology concepts such as (i) information flow in the central dogma of molecular biology and (ii) how synthetic biologists can engineer biological systems in predictable ways.

There’s nothing about random mutation or selection here. Students become the artificial selectors to achieve goals. They make predictions and engineer the reactants to make them work. That’s intelligent design. And you’re telling us this kind of activity would fulfill the NGSS standards for teaching about “evolution”? How interesting.

This is not to suggest that the Wyss folks are Darwin skeptics or proponents of intelligent design. Very probably they are neither. But maybe this curriculum built on biomimetics and design principles provides an opportunity to turn a corner in the biology curriculum in public schools, casting some new light on sheer-dumb-luck Darwinism. Hey, it’s their idea. Not ours. (As we never tire of pointing out, Discovery Institute urges against introducing ID in public schools.)

Design-Friendly Vocabulary

The BioBits curriculum offers many other benefits for society, the authors believe. Look at the design-friendly vocabulary in the Introduction:

Synthetic biology aims to program biological systems to carry out useful functions. As a field, synthetic biology has made meaningful progress toward biomanufacturing of medicines, sustainable chemicals, and advanced fuels, as well as cellular diagnostics and therapies. At the core of these advances is the ability to control and tune the processes of transcription and translation, offering a point of entry for teaching fundamental biology topics through cutting-edge biological technologies. Synthetic biology also offers rich educational opportunities, as it requires students to confront real-world, interdisciplinary problems at the intersection of diverse disciplines including chemistry, biology, engineering, computer science, design, policy, and ethics.

There’s reason to be concerned about what “synthetic biology” might lead to in classes on policy and ethics. But if this BioBits curriculum, derived from bio-inspired design at the Wyss Center, can help students grasp the concepts of genetic information, sequence specificity, information flow, function, fine-tuning, and engineering design — and if it can simultaneously fulfill the NGSS requirements for teaching about “evolution” — then wow! Won’t students’ eyes light up as their designed solutions light up?

“All scientists are passionate about what they do, and we are frustrated by the difficulty our educational system has had in inciting a similar level of passion in young people. This BioBits project demonstrates the kind of out-of-the-box thinking and refusal to accept the status quo that we value and cultivate at the Wyss Institute, and we all hope it will stimulate young people to be intrigued by science,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, MD, PhD

Perhaps this is a junction where biologists, including design advocates, can work in synergy to improve educational standards, prepare students for cutting-edge technologies, and design applications to improve health and welfare around the world. Motivating students to imitate nature’s designs is an attractive concept. And think of it, educators: Who’s going to threaten you if you are improving STEM instruction with a curriculum from Harvard?

Photo: A student gains “hands-on” experience with DNA with an inexpensive BioBits kit, by Wyss Institute at Harvard University.