SOURCE Lesson Plans Detail

Synthetic Biology

Topic Biology
Program Brown Science Prep
Developed by Michael Danzigar, Harry Wanar
Developer Type High school students

Wrap up / Conclusion

Discuss the pros and cons of GMOs.

Supporting Web Information

Pre Assessment Plan

1. GMO stands for:
A. Green Mountain Orchards
B. Generic Mouse Orifice
C. General Mutant Origin
D. Genetically Modified Organism
E. Get More Oatmeal

2. Name the molecule that genes are encoded in

3a. Let’s say that we find a type of weed that’s resistant to a specific weed-killer. We do a series of experiments that tells us what the specific gene for resistance to weed killer is. Is this an example of synthetic or reductionist biology?

b. Now let’s say after we find the gene, we “cut” it out of that type of weed, and “paste” it into corn DNA, and start growing new corn crops. Was this an example of synthetic or reductionist biology?

4. Fill in the blank: Organisms called ______________________ are able to survive in conditions that would kill most other organisms, such as extreme heat, extreme cold, high altitudes, or high pressures.

Post Assessment Plan

Review the answers to the pre-assessment questions. Compare GMOs!

Overview / Purpose / Essential Questions

To introduce the fundamental principles of synthetic biology.

Performance / Lesson Objective(s)

Teach students the workings of a particular biological system, break that system down into its individual components, and show how each of those components can be manipulated to create novel functionality.

Lesson Motivation

The purpose of this lesson is to introduce biology as a creative, rather than purely exploratory, enterprise. We’ll use the example of diabetes as a thing to be manipulated

Lesson Activities

Designing a GMO using basic information about synthetic biology


Lesson Plan:
0. Everything you need to know about genetics in 5 bullet points or less
- For any living organism (including humans), almost all of their physical characteristics (height, hair color, eye color, etc.) can be traced back to their genes
- A gene is a specific section of DNA that codes for one of these physical characteristics (or phenotype)
- DNA codes these genes using nucleotides (but you don’t need to worry about how we get from dna -> phenotypes)
- With new technologies, we can treat these genes as individual units, and essentially “cut” them out of one organism, and “paste” them into another
- When we do this, we can introduce a new physical characteristic into an organism. For example, certain jellyfish can glow green. We can find the gene for “glowing green”, cut it out of the jellyfish, and paste it into an organism that usually doesn’t glow green.

1. There are two approaches to biology: reductionist and synthetic

a. Reductionist approach: Biological systems as large things that can be broken down until you

reach their fundamental level of functionality

b. Works well in some cases, e.g. diabetes

i. Human body -> endocrine system -> endocrine organs -> pancreas -> specific

regions of the pancreas (islets of langerhans) -> alpha/beta cells ->insulin/glucagon -> genes encoding for insulin/glucagon

c. Works worse in other cases

i. Emotions -> brain -> neurons -> synapses -> neurotransmitters ->


d. Advantages: Comprises most of current research, easily shared information between people,

understanding of processes on a fundamental level

e. Disadvantages: Not all things can be understood by breaking them down into smaller and

smaller pieces (the whole is greater than the sum of the parts)

2. The synthetic approach: Learning about a system by building it up instead of taking it apart
a. Advantages of the synthetic approach: utilizes known information to manipulate a system for a purpose, drawing heavily upon creativity.
b. Disadvantages: bounded by ethics (or really, the fuzzy line between the ethical and not) and public mistrust
i. Bioterrorism
ii. GMOs

c. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) – Engineering an organism means that you

introduce some new function into it that wasn’t the before

i. The Fish Tomato: Tomatoes freeze in the winter, killing the plant. Meaning that

they can only be grown for a certain portion of the year

ii. BUT, a certain species of fish (the Winter Flounder) thrives in cold, near freezing


iii. So, how do we combine these two things?

1. Find the gene that confers cold weather resistance in the fish, and transplant that into the tomato.

iv. Other examples: Herbicide resistant crops, Bacteria that digest oil (for use in oil

spills), etc.

v. Discuss pros (cheaper crops, higher yields, more food) vs. cons (lack of a full

understanding of even the simplest organisms, so we have no way of knowing the totality of genetic manipulation).

3. Activity: Design a GMO
Each of the five groups will receive one of the below extremophiles (organisms that survive in

very stressful conditions), along with a description of where you found it

1. In the Arctic Ocean, you find a fish that seemingly immune to the cold weather. You take it

back to the lab, and find the gene that gives it this ability. You name the gene “Freeze”

2. On a volcanic rim, you find a bird’s nest, with baby bird that are growing just fine in the

extreme heat. You take it back to the lab, and find the gene that gives it this ability. You name the gene “HotStuff”

3. While hiking around the ashes of Chernobyl, you find a squirrel that is resistant to the high levels of radioactivity. You take it back to the lab, and find the gene that gives it this ability. You name the gene “Nuclear”

4. While climbing everest, you find a plant growing near the top, despite the fact that there is little oxygen at that altitude. You find the genes responsible for this activity, and you call the gene “LowO2”

5. A certain lake in brazil has been devastated by a spill of highly acidic waste from the nearby factory. Yet, you find a family of frogs that is still doing fine. You find the gene responsible for this activity, and you call it “Acid”

Now, along with your specific organism, you have on hand all the other genes found in the other organisms. In addition to these five genes, you have five more genes lying around your lab
- GLO: makes you organism glow in the dark
- NIghtVis: your organism can see in the dark
- Tall: Your organism’s height doubles
- ThirdArm: Your organism grows an extra limb
- Fishy: Your organism grows gills/can breathe underwater
Rules: You can add up to 3 new genes to your organism (any more will kill it). In addition to that, certain pairs of mutations (listed below) will end up killing your organism:
- HotStuff & Freeze
- Freeze & LowO2
- LowO2 & Acid
- Acid & Nuclear
- Nuclear & HotStuff
- GLO & NightVis
- Tall & Fishy
- Tall & GLO

Contest: You are a scientist creating new Genetically Modified Organisms. In order to secure funding for your new project, you need to both design a new GMO, and justify why you should receive funding to make it. GMOs that serve some kind of useful function are more likely to receive funding.

4. Synthetic pathways

a. Firstly, let’s present an existing pathway in the body – Glucose regulation

b. Glucose levels are sensed by beta cells in the pancreas. When glucose levels get high enough,

these cells release insulin. Cells in the body sense the higher insulin levels, and take glucose out

of bloodstream and into the cells.

i. Map this pathway out on the board

c. Type 1 DM – the insulin-producing beta cells are missing

i. Show how this affects the map on the board
ii. What pieces are missing from a healthy individual?

1. We need something to sense high levels of glucose, and we need something to produce insulin

2. Find the genes needed for these functions, and get them back into the organism

d. Type 2 DM – The part of the cell that sense higher insulin levels are missing

i. Ask students how they could fix this problem

Alignment Info

Audience(s) High school students
STEM Area(s) Biology
Life Sciences (RI GSE) LS1.9-11.1a
Students demonstrate understanding of structure and function-survival requirements by… explaining the relationships between and amongst the specialized structures of the cell and their functions (e.g. transport of materials, energy transfer, protein building, waste disposal, information feedback, and even movement).
Activity Type(s) Lecture
Grade Level(s) High School
Version 1
Created 11/11/2012 02:08 PM
Updated 12/20/2018 11:57 AM