Bringing Genetics to the Public

About an engineering fair, a public Science festival and a highly motivated team of students from across the globe motivated by Science.

KU Leuven iGEM
Jun 5 · 4 min read
Lore de Valck explaining the iGEM Program, Molecular Biology, and what we aim to achieve at the Advanced Engineering Conference in Gent, 2019.

Last week, the iGEM Leuven team attended two near simultaneous events in Belgium, one of which was open to the public, the other being a corporate engineering fair. At both events, iGEM had the opportunity to present new concepts to people, and talk about the ideas and possibilities presented by genetic engineering. The public festival, aptly named the Sound of Science festival, allowed the Belgian public to talk not only to iGEM, but also to science groups that worked on everything from AI recognition to 3D printing and manufacturing. The Advanced Engineering fair provided the opportunity to refine the setup that had been used in the artistic exhibition in Brussels, a piece that iGEM’s scientists worked on together with a local artist.

Advanced Engineering at Flanders Expo, Gent

On the left, the VR Simulation — what people would see when they donned the VR headset, and what they could physically walk around in. On the right, the touchscreen controls where people can put together lego block-like sequneces of genes, and insert their completed block into the cells.

Advanced Engineering came first, as well — We setup a newer, upgraded VR version of the previous exhibition. People could easily design their own sequences, with descriptions helping them to understand what the little sequences of genes they were stitching together might actually do. It’s all digital, of course, but even there the simulation tries to preserve some of the curiosity that you find in the lab. You might not expect that making a bacteria more toxic actually decreases how easily it can spread between cells. But you could certainly see this. As people inserted their bacteria into the simulation, they could don a VR headset and witness the cells and bacteria interact, the cells shrinking and growing as they fluctuated between life and death. This simulation captured many of the people in the Advanced Engineering fair, as they enjoyed walking around within the cells that floated around them. And they could see and experience their genes too, spending some time to try and see how the cells travelled and moved, certain cells dying as infectious bacteria killed cells off, and other cells helped digest nutrients to bring cells back to life. Scientifically accurate? Well, it’s a little more complex — but the gist of the concept was planted in their minds, and sometimes that’s all it takes.

Sound of Science at Fort 4, Mortsel, Belgium

The Biohacking workshop at Mortsel, where attendees learned to use electronics to build a thermocycler, an essential lab component.

The Sound of Science workshop was of an entirely different calibre. At an enthusiastic and all-day Science Festival in the remote town of Mortsel, Belgium, 15 people signed up to a small tent to learn about biohacking. Over the course of 90 minutes, a range of both kids and adults worked together to build a thermocycler: an electric component designed to cycle a fluid between hot and cold temperatures, often used to perform PCR. PCR is a process used in Molecular Biology to help amplify DNA so that you can get more of the same DNA. While simple in principle, it’s an important step since nearly every step of Molecular Biology uses much more DNA then you have initially available. The main organiser of the workshop, Federica Mare, said the following about the Sound of Science workshop:

By organising this biohacking workshop we tried to make people curious for experimenting with molecular biology at home. We developed an easy to understand manual describing the necessary components and the Arduino code. I think it’s safe to say the workshop was a success, with people attending from all age groups and knowledge levels.

Thomas Storme digging away at fossils at a Sound of Science exhibit, taken from

To build your own home-based thermocycler, you can be access the (Dutch) manual here. The code to maintain a constant temperature can be found at this GitHub link.

If you would like to stay up to date on what the iGEM Leuven team is up to, you can find them on their Website, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Written by: Bert KK Callens

KU Leuven iGEM

Written by

The 2019 KU Leuven iGEM team shares its stories.

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