Lego your genes in the bioGARAGE
Tools for sequencing DNA and editing genes are transforming the future. Now, thanks to three uOttawa professors, even students with no science background can learn to use them.
BioGARAGE is the brainchild of Corrie daCosta, Adam Shuhendler and François-Xavier Campbell-Valois, assistant professors in the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences. When bioGARAGE opens in uOttawa’s new STEM building in 2018, it will become a hub for students from all disciplines to gain experiential learning in building, reconfiguring and combining DNA and proteins, the building blocks of life.
“You can think of it a lot like Lego,” Shuhendler says. “We’ll provide students with the building blocks they can use to be creative and combine them in different ways. We want to give students a space in molecular biology where they can do things no one has done before.”
From the music student who wonders what genes sound like to the artist who dreams of designing a mural of fluorescent proteins, bioGARAGE will foster creativity and become an incubator of entrepreneurship and inclusive innovation.
“Because we can synthesize pieces of DNA now relatively cheaply, we can make anything we can dream up in our head,” daCosta says.
Along the way, students will also confront the ethical questions arising from these tools, and learn about their power, pitfalls and potential.
BioGARAGE was born from the scientists’ own experiences as students and teachers. As undergraduates, they were taught to solve problems in linear steps, reaching an expected outcome. As graduate students, though, they were expected to think more creatively.
“You can’t always draw a line between Point A and Point D and have a clear path toward the objective,” Campbell-Valois says.
BioGARAGE will give students the confidence to innovate when confronted with unexpected results, and also encourage an entrepreneurial mindset. Start-up and established companies will also be able to work with talented students to solve difficult problems and challenge established science.
Plasmids are one of the first tools students will learn to use at bioGARAGE. These are small pieces of circular DNA that carry genes, which bacteria use to transfer genetic information. When the students learn to manipulate plasmids, they can design them with new properties, placing them into cells and changing their function.
BioGARAGE will capitalize on the entrepreneurial culture that uOttawa is cultivating across campus. Students might even create new plasmids — carrying genes that can resist toxins or digest nutrients more easily, for example. They could patent and distribute these plasmids to other researchers around the world.
They will learn not only how to use cutting-edge genetic technology, but also to problem-solve — and think— unfettered by limitations
“We’ll foster creativity and learn by doing,” daCosta says. “We want to tear away the veil and make molecular biology more accessible and open.”
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