Synthetic Biology


The 21st Century Prometheans?

A little over a year ago, Brad posted a link to a survey on Synthetic Biology.  Although it appears that little has fundamentally changed since then, this burgeoning field, along side nanotechnology, has become front page news, and will hopefully become a topic of conversation in your biology class in the near future.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on Synthetic Biology but I thought a few resources may provide you with enough background knowledge to approach the topic with your students this year.  Maybe they could use this post itself as a springboard for discussion or more research.  The post is in three parts, each accompanied by some thought provoking quotes from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein…

Early Years and Standford’s Drew Endy

In these links you will will find a reference to one of the first papers in the field, a few comic responses to the field, and links to two YouTube videos (originally TED Talks) of Drew Endy explaining the difference between Synthetic Biology and the more standard and familiar recombinant DNA and genetic engineering technologies.

“The world was to him a secret which he desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to him, are among the earliest sensations he can remember . . . It was the secrets of heaven and earth that he desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied him, still his inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in it highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.”

  1. Synthetic Biology: Engineering Escherichia coli to see light (November 2005)
  2. Nature’s comic on Synthetic Biology (November 2005)
  3. The Story of Synthia – another comic look at synthetic biology
  4. Synthetic Biology Organization with a press link to numerous popular critiques of synthetic biology
  5. SEED’s Cribsheet on Synthetic Biology (July 2010)


(June 2007)


(December 2008)

Venter creates the News & President Obama’s Responds

“There was none among the myriads of men that existed who would pity or assist me; and should I feel kindness towards my enemies? No: from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me and sent me forth to this insupportable misery.”


(May 2010)

  1. The President’s Emerging Technologies Interagency Policy Coordination Committee’s Inaugural Meeting (May 2010)
  2. NPR Story, Presidential Panel Scrutinizes Synthetic Biology (July 2010)

Resources for those interested in Doing some Synthetic Biology

The following resources are for entering the field of Synthetic Biology.  The first link will introduce you to an annual competition used to motivate undergraduate teams of students to design and engineer novel pathways in E. coli.  If you search around, I think that you’ll find that there has been a single high school team involved in the competition before.  Some of university sponsors are quite interested in developing a kit to introduce students to the methods synthetic biology.

  1. iGEM 2010
  2. Authentic Teaching and Learning through Synthetic Biology based the E. coli engineered to sense light
  3. The BioBricks Foundation
  4. Registry of Standard Biological Parts
  5. BioBrick Assembly Kit from New England BioLabs

“‘The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.”

Hovering Hymenoptera

Observations at a Volleyball Court, accompanied by an ID & Behavioral Challenge

While on holiday in Oklahoma this weekend, I happened by this volleyball court on the way to the pool.   My attention was immediately drawn to movements that I observed in my periphery.  Here is what I observed from sand level…

and close-up from above…

The species may be territorial.  While individuals came close to each other it appeared like there were brief chases and overall there was an emergent spatial pattern (I think you can see it in the first video) suggestive of territoriality.   I tried to follow the movement of a single individual but it was too difficult for me.

After spending more time, continuing to ignore my children swimming and doing flips of the side of the pool, I made these more detailed observations suggestive of territoriality as well.  In the first video, you will see interactions between numerous live individuals with a single dead individual of the same species…

Here is a close-up image of an instance of this behavior…

In the second video, you will see interactions of these hymenoptera with a mottled leaf…

Here is a close-up image of an instance of this behavior…

The fact that the colors of the leaf are similar to some of those found in the wasps themselves made me wonder if I could elicit the behavior with another leaf.  The leaf I chose to use, unlike the one I found them naturally interacting with, was entirely yellow.  What do you hypothesize will happen?

Around the periphery of the volleyball court, I noticed holes in the sand that were approximately the same diameter as the cylinder shape of the insect themselves (see below), although maybe a bit weathered.  I should have dug them up but didn’t think of it at the time.

I had noticed similar behavior in a much smaller number of cicada killers in a children’s sandbox, but had no idea what type of hymenoptera this species was.  Similar, I wondered, was this a mating swarm?  Where they recently emerged individuals?  What was the ratio of genders?  How long does this behavior persist?  What resources might they use to maintain their energy?

A few curious individuals did happen to come by while I was making my observations, and I received seemingly conflicting reports on their longevity.  One adult mentioned that they are there all the time, while a couple of kids arriving to play volleyball hadn’t noticed them there the day before.  In fact, later that night I saw, from afar, four people playing volleyball.  I might add, that to get some of the images and video, I walked in amongst the swarm.  I did so slowly but felt that they may have ignored me even if I had walked in at a normal pace.

So, here’s the challenge…

  • What is the genus and/or species of this hymenoptera?  and
  • What the heck are they doing?

As mentioned in response to Brad’s post on aphids, I think a collection of such videos and images could make an interesting series of ecological activities for students, and possibly a series of models for them to produce their own reports, blogs, etc… on interesting outdoor observations that can motivate learning of particular ecological principles.

For anyone that responds with the answers, unknown to me with any certainty, it would be nice, and potentially helpful in the future, for you to provide links to websites that helped in your identification.