For our outreach, we wanted our network to also reach beyond the groups usually targeted. Therefore, we used some unconventional networks to reach out to groups that might not immediately come to mind. We have given presentations on synthetic biology and our project at Mensa and the Freemasonry and we used Tinder and other social media to reach out to new people. We were also featured in a webarticle on an agriculture-related newsplatform. More information on our endeavors can be read in more detail below.
Next to this, we also held different presentations and engagement activities with students from high schools and our university. We gave a presentation about synthetic biology and our project to the finalists of the Dutch Biology Olympiad and to high school students participating in a "Student for a day" program. At our university, we participated in giving talks in different courses, we presented our project to new students and gave an open lunch lecture on campus.
To meet with people from the industry and academia, we attended multiple conferences on biotechnology in the Netherlands and Spain. We also met up with different iGEM teams from the Netherlands and Europe during multiple meetups to discuss and learn from each other’s projects.
We met with the Freemasons of Enschede to discuss our project. They are a collective of men that convene to freely discuss topics with broader implications for individuals and society. Through these discussions, they can grow wiser and be more prepared to deal with differing perspectives in day-to-day life. Their slogan is “Know yourself”. Their ideals are that when you are able to know and improve yourself, this will improve the world.
First, we gave a general introduction to synthetic biology, explaining the role of DNA in cells, and how we can use engineering principles to build new life forms with this DNA. Then, we explained the problem Xylella fastidiosa poses, and our proposed solution.
In science, we have a preconceived notion of the layperson as easily scared, prone to misinformation and generally opposed to the advancement of science. Therefore, we expected that in the subsequent discussions we would have to be on the defensive continuously. Instead, we perceived excitement in the public, and what followed was a session where we imagined and questioned together the immense possibilities of synthetic biology.
That said, some valid concerns were raised as well. Firstly, we explored the side-effects that our phages may have. Afterwards, we discussed dual use. When discussing dual use, an easy trap to fall in is to regress into technological dystopianism. A worldview in which technology is only there to dominate us, further and technological risks are overblown. One of the Freemasons proposed the example of a fork, which can be used to eat, but also to stab someone. We were delighted to see that this example motivated people to keep seeing the good in technology, as you would never want to give up a fork. What resulted was a mind-set of moderate concern, which we believe is most useful in progressing in this kind of discussions. We also found out what areas can and cannot be explored.
Finally, it was brought up that many modern problems originate in the ways humanity has intervened in the natural world. It was proposed that the proliferation of X. fastidiosa may have been the result of the disturbance of a balance in nature. This was interesting especially to reflect on later, having spoken to Eiko Kuramae, as she, a researcher and expert on X. fastidiosa, broadly shared this view.
We were invited to the European Mensa’s Annual Gathering (EMAG) to tell more about synthetic biology. Mensa is a high IQ association that offers intellectual exchange for its members through activities like lectures, gatherings, discussions and journals. At EMAG we gave a lecture about synthetic biology and how we apply this in our project.
There was a diverse group of people who attended the lecture with a broad age range and different knowledge and viewpoints on the use of GMO techniques. This made for an interesting audience to present our project to. The lecture started off with a general introduction to what synthetic biology is, explaining some basic pillars like DNA and CRISPR-Cas. Then, we discussed safety and responsibility and where to apply these techniques and who should be responsible for their safe usage. Generally, there was an air of suspicion towards how the research was being funded and this made people skeptical towards the use of these techniques. The diversity of the group resulted in an interesting dialogue where multiple viewpoints were expressed.
Next, we explained about iGEM and our own project. A lot of the attendees were not yet familiar with X. fastidiosa, which is wreaking havoc in the Apulia region in Italy. They were very interested in our approach and application of phages to fight this plant pathogen. In the end, we reached a lot of new people with our lecture who were inspired by the possibilities of synthetic biology.
In the beginning of August, we had an interview with the Hortipoint website about our project. This resulted in the publication of both a Dutch and an English article on their website. This article was picked up by several other Dutch agriculture-related websites: Floribusiness and Agriholland.nl. After our article on the Hortipoint website, we were contacted by one of the writers of the Wageningen University paper “Resource”, even though we were already planning to contact them later in our project. They approached us for an article, which led to the publication of both a Dutch and an English article on their website. Again, these articles were shared by other Dutch websites: B&P Nieuws, Agriholland.nl, Groeneruimte and Boom in Business. It was very nice to see an interest in our project from different angles. We are also in collaboration with Hortipoint on a printed article on Xylencer and our iGEM experiences.
Previous iGEM teams had not made a profile for the Wageningen team on LinkedIn. Therefore, we made a profile and a business page to connect to people who might be interested in our research. This proved very fruitful as it helped a great deal in reaching out to stakeholders and making initial contact with them. It also gave ourselves an extra channel to present our project.
The previous team made an Instagram account, on which we continued to post new content this year. On the account, we introduced all team members. Besides that, we participated in the iGEM Instagram Challenge of team Stony_Brook and in the Sustainable Development Goals challenge, which was a joint challenge by team Tuebingen, TAS_Taipei and Costa_Rica. At the 23rd of May of 2019, we had 292 followers. By the 21st of October, the number of followers had grown to reach 516 followers.
Facebook was used to share our progress over the past few months and to keep everyone interested and up to date on our project. We also participated in the one-minute challenge on Facebook from team Technion-Israel after being nominated by the Tartu TUIT team from Estonia. The aim of the challenge was to explain your project in a one-minute video. This was a good way to reach more people in an approachable way with what we are doing in our project.
We also took over the existing Twitter account on which we tried to post more serious content, since Twitter is more often used by companies. We also contacted some potential sponsors via Twitter. We used it to share our project and crowdfunding. Our project got picked up by the former Dutch minister of Finance and former president of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem (and current head of the supervisory board of Wageningen University), who tweeted about our project and crowdfunding to his over 100.000 followers. On Twitter, we had 711 followers on the 23rd of May. By the 21st of October, the number of followers had grown to 781 followers.
As part of our outreach to unusual networks, we really wanted to employ Tinder to spread the word on synthetic biology. Since phages play a central role in our project, we made a male and a female phage and gave them their own profile. Thus, our Tinder phages Salvador and Philomena came to be and set out on their quest to inform lonely singles about the wonders of synthetic biology. Early on they managed to match to some of the more curious Tinder users, hopefully opening their minds to the possibilities of synthetic biology. Sadly, Tinder seems to discriminate against phages and they were quite quickly banned. We had some good fun reaching out over Tinder, but Salvador and Philomena will have to wait until there is a more phage-friendly dating platform available.
Biology Olympiad arrow_downward
Every year, the International Biology Olympiad is organized. In 2019, a Dutch delegation represented the Netherlands during the International Biology Olympiad in Szeget, Hungary. In the finals week, the top 20 students in biology get lectured and quizzed on various topics in the field of biology. After this week, it is determined which four students will be part of the Biology Olympiad team that will represent the Netherlands.
As part of our outreach and public education campaign, we contacted the organizing committee of the Dutch Biology Olympiad to ask whether it was possible to give a lecture on both synthetic biology and our project for these students. We gave a lecture on Friday the 31st of May. We started the morning with an introduction to synthetic biology. In this introduction, we first explained gene structures (promoter, coding region and terminator), restriction enzymes and plasmids components. With this knowledge provided, we walked them through the steps of plasmid cloning - PCR, digestion, ligation and transformation – and finished this lecture with an explanation on Biobricks.
After this introduction, we gave the students the opportunity to use the gained knowledge during a computer practical. In the first part of this practical, we provided a raw DNA sequence, of which they had to find the origins. Using ORFfinders and Blast, they found that this coded for a X. fastidiosa protein. Using different bioinformatics tools, they found this protein's function, domains and localization.
The second part of this practical involved the construction of Biobricks. After a more in-depth explanation of Biobrick structure (prefix, coding sequence, suffix), they designed PCR primers for the amplification of the protein they found in the first part. After this, they set up a digestion and ligation reaction, taking reaction stoichiometry into account to clone this fragment into a backbone. Then, we provided an in silico gel digest picture to show how a successful ligation + digestion reaction would show up on a gel.
After the computer practical was finished, we gave a second presentation in which we explained our project. We started the presentation by talking about X. fastidiosa, its life cycle and the problems it causes. Later, we gave a small introduction on bacteriophages and how we would utilize them in our project. After our presentation, the students were able to ask questions and give feedback. One of the questions was if we had considered bacteriophages that would stay dormant temporarily before killing the bacterial cell (lysogenic phages). This was an avenue we were also exploring at that moment, so it was nice to see that more people had this idea.
After the presentation on our project, the students made the test we had prepared for them. In this test, the students had to answer 5 multiple choice and 7 open questions on both synthetic biology and our project. Once the test was finished, they said that the lectures and the practical were challenging, but interesting. Exactly what our goal was beforehand! We hope to have inspired these students to consider a career in synthetic biology and maybe even participate in an iGEM team in the near future.
AID presentations arrow_downward
Every year in August, Wageningen University organises the Annual Introduction Days (or AID) for new students. In this introduction, students familiarize themselves with the university, the town, their fellow students and their study programme. To make students more familiar with their study programme, the board organizes these study days. During these study days, the programme director of a certain study tells more about what to expect from it, as well as more practical issues such as “How to find your lecture room” or “Which books to purchase”. Besides this, the study organization gives a presentation about the activities they are organizing.
On the 18th and 19th of August, we attended these study days for the Bachelor and Master programmes of Biotechnology and Molecular Life Sciences. We gave a presentation about the iGEM competition and our project to encourage the students to consider joining the iGEM team during their studies and to make them enthusiastic about synthetic biology. We hope to see some of them in future Wageningen University iGEM teams.
Lecture at Introduction to Synthetic Biology arrow_downward
We presented our project to the students participating in the course Systems and Synthetic Biology for the minor in systems biology. Third year Bachelor students take this minor because they have an interest in synthetic biology and want to learn more about the topic. This course gives a general introduction in the field.
We presented our project to show them how they can apply their knowledge of synthetic biology on real-life issues. These are also potential new members of the iGEM Wageningen teams in the coming years, so we also discussed how it is organized and what joining entails.
At the end of the talk we had time to answer all the questions the students might have. They were especially interested in the timing of events. In our project, it is difficult to time certain events, like the activation of the kill switch when no X. fastidiosa is detected. The timing of certain events can be modeled. This can link back to the minor these students are following. In systems biology they will apply modeling to dynamic biological systems. This connection between wet and dry lab seemed interesting to them.
The students loved seeing synthetic biology tackle a very tangible issue. They wondered how we came up with a problem to address using synthetic biology. The students also seemed enthusiastic about the iGEM experience, combining science with things like human practices and funding.
Weekend of Science arrow_downward
Each year in the Netherlands, the “Weekend of Science” is organized. During this weekend, various research institutes, companies and universities invite the general public to discover science. People of all ages come to experience science and to be inspired by its possibilities.
We also participated to tell people about iGEM and our project. Together with children we crafted phages from paper, while we explained them what they were making. We explained our project in more depth to the families using our poster and our crowdfunding video. It was great to talk to people about our project and introduce science to children.
Workshop The Hague arrow_downward
During the meetup in The Hague, we gave a presentation on "Safe-by-Design in the education" at Wageningen University. This presentation was part of the workshop “Safe-by-Design in education: Why, What, How & Future”. This workshop consisted of three presentations. One on Safe-by-Design, another one on how safety is incorporated in education and the last one about our team. To this workshop, we incorporated the viewpoint from a student on the role of safety in current education. This opened the dialogue on how safety can be incorporated better in education and in a way that inspires students. It was a fruitful discussion which connected several educational professionals to work together to give safety an important place in education.
To inform people about the research we have done, we gave a public lunch lecture on campus. The lecture was free for anyone to attend and a diverse group of people came to listen to our story: from professors to anyone interested in the topic. It was great to have the opportunity to talk to people about the iGEM competition and our project while they would have lunch. We spoke to an editor of the magazine of the Dutch plant disease association. We will be featured in their magazine, and our boardgame might be used to teach highschool students about working in the lab.
"Student for a day" program arrow_downward
We were invited to present our project and show our laboratories to highschool students interested in starting the bachelor of Molecular Life Sciences next year. The students came in 3 groups. For every group, we first presented our project and answered any questions they might have. We subsequently gave them a tour around our laboratories, explaining the use of all equipment we saw along the way. By doing this, we hope to have inspired future students to pursue synthetic biology and maybe become iGEM participants one day.
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Holland Bio (28th of June)
On the 28th of June we went to the Holland Bio event, an event for representatives of biotech companies. There, we were submerged in the entrepreneurial viewpoints. We talked to several people about our project and we got a lot of questions about patents. Therefore, we decided to contact a patent expert at the university later. It was very interesting to talk to several people about our project and inform them of the iGEM competition and synthetic biology.
Dutch Biotechnology Conference (22nd of May)
We had a great chance to interact with the Dutch biotechnology society at their annual conference. During this conference we had a poster pitch. A lot of interested people came by to ask questions about our project. We also talked to the other iGEM teams about their experiences and their projects. There were also interesting presentations, one of which was on Safe-by-Design. This inspired us to incorporate Safe-by-Design in our project by participating in the Safe-by-Design assignment from the RIVM.
SafeChassis – biosafety workshop (24th of September)
Our safety officer Ben went to the biosafety workshop "SafeChassis". The goal of this workshop was to discuss the application of genetically modified organisms and to predict the possible impact of these organisms in certain areas. The panel of the workshop included a large variety of stakeholders such as governmental institutions, regulators, industry and academic scientists. During this workshop, several guest speakers presented their work on safety, risk assessment and legislation in the application of GMOs in daily life. Furthermore, we were allowed to give a presentation about our project and especially about the main bottlenecks we have encountered. This was a big opportunity for us to discuss our project with experts in the field.
XIII Annual Biotechnological Congress (BAC) in Madrid, Spain (10th – 12th July)
We knew that X. fastidiosa is a big problem in some Southern European countries, and we were already planning on contacting stakeholders from the Spanish public administration. However, we wanted to get a sense of the opinion of leading researchers on the current status of the fight against X. fastidiosa in Spain. The BAC, a conference with young scientists as a target audience, was the perfect opportunity for us to learn from these experts and also present our novel synthetic biology approach to eradicate X. fastidiosa.
During these two days, we presented our poster and attended several talks given by researchers that work on different biotechnological fields. One of them, Dr. Aranzazu Gómez Garay, president of the Asociación Española de Sanidad Vegetal (AESaVe), gave a presentation on biosafety and plant health. She introduced us to the concept of biological control, which is the use of living microorganisms to control plagues. This is, in fact, the basis of Xylencer’s approach to combating X. fastidiosa.
During the Q&A part of the presentation, a farmer whose crops have been affected by X. fastidiosa in the Spanish region of Alicante asked Mrs. Gómez about her opinion on the current eradication measures against the pathogen. To that, she replied that many European countries that are not affected by the plant pathogen still support what she considers to be ancient measures, such as the cutting down of all trees in a demarked area.
From this conference we concluded that in Spain some researchers are supporting the use of other microorganisms to control plagues, which differs from the more mainstream use of phytopathogens.