OpenPlant’s showstopper; synthetic biology! – Public reaction at the Cambridge Science Festival

In March a team from the John Innes Centre brought the premise of synthetic biology to the public. As an annual event growing every year Cambridge Science Festival attracts people from across the city to learn about new developments in science and technology. Stall activities ranged from the extraction of DNA from Strawberries (University of Cambridge) to investigating evolution first hand with primate skulls (Wellcome Genome Campus). OpenPlant’s stall featured a glimpse into synthetic biology.

A disassembled phone explained the idea that by knowing how each of the individual simple components work (a dialling pad to input your desired number, a vibrating receiver coil to change the electrical signal into a sound wave) you can build more elaborate systems.


A disassembled (and retro) telephone, showing simple components forming a complex system

You can then use this concept in a biological setting. Firstly you understand how genes work, then you break these into smaller components each with their individual job, for example a sequence to tell you when to switch on a biological system. Finally this can be combined in a living organism to produce a desirable trait.

At the Science Festival, the public used this idea to make weird and wonderful new lifeforms! A cat whose nose turns purple when a disease is nearby. Useful for medical diagnosis? Or how about sprouts that taste of strawberries when it snows, which many would no doubt relish at Christmas time? Or a personal favourite provided by one dad - a plant whose leaves turn gold when you water it.


A biological dream; leaves which turn gold when you water it

Obviously most of our new inventions that day were unlikely, no matter how much scientists persevere with them; I think a money tree is still a few years off. But the solid basis for such work is undertaken in laboratories throughout the world, and the public were undoubtedly positive about synthetic biology. Although everybody (well apart from a young girl who wished to use squids to inflict harm on unsavoury characters) was clear that it should be only used for good and moral solutions to problems. The OpenPlant team was able to stress ethical procedures are in place for this which many found comforting as sometimes the public can find scientists secretive at best.

The Cambridge Science Festival is a vibrant, thriving and free event. Not only do people gain a glimpse of the developments in science but it’s also rewarding to the scientists giving up their time to share their knowledge and discussing their subject area. And synthetic biology is a hot topic which everyone should be talking about.

Written by Nicola Capstaff -

Cartoon is credited to Erin Zess, a PhD student at the John Innes Centre

The 2017 Cambridge Science Festival will take place on 13-26th March 2017 -