SAW Trust

Late night (biological) engineering in London


By Sami Stebbings

Once a month something amazing happens at the London Science Museum, and last month our collaborative team from OpenPlant, the SAW Trust, the University of East Anglia (UEA) and graphic recorder Rebecca Osborne, got to be part of it.

On the last Wednesday of every month, the London Science Museum opens its doors late into the evening to welcome adults to an engaging and free evening out, as part of the Science Museum Lates.

Each evening is themed around a different science topic, attracts around 4,000 guests per night and offers a relaxed atmosphere where you can walk around with a drink in hand whilst talking science.

This month’s theme was ‘The year of the engineer’ and we brought the synthetic biology edge to the night with our ‘Engineering Natural Products’ stand. With the help of Dr Richard Bowater (University of East Anglia), Hannah Griffiths (John Innes Centre) and of course DNA Dave, visitors were taken on a journey from the discovery of DNA through to how scientists engineer biological systems.

Our enthusiastic public engagement volunteers, Jenni Rant and Sami Stebbings (SAW Trust) and John Innes Centre PhD students' Hannah Griffiths and Shannon Woodhouse.

Our enthusiastic public engagement volunteers, Jenni Rant and Sami Stebbings (SAW Trust) and John Innes Centre PhD students' Hannah Griffiths and Shannon Woodhouse.

Our stand told the story of avenacin, a triterpene that is found in the roots of oat plants and helps make the plant resistant to fungal diseases. By understanding how these plants produce avenacin from the instruction in their DNA, we explored how scientists can engineer other biological systems to mimic their production. For example, can we transfer these genes from oat plants, into other crops, such as wheat which have no natural antifungal protection?


Guests had a plethora of activities to take part in, from our ‘Fishing for DNA’ activity, Avenacin Pathway puzzle, to getting up close and personal with an avenacin molecule using VR. They also had a chance to get hands on and infiltrate tobacco plants and see fluorescing oat seedlings!

With a steady stream of people throughout the night, the evening was a great success (not only because there was gin bar)! A massive thank you to all our collaborators who helped pull our stand and activities together, as well as the fantastically organised, London Science Museum team.

In was a great event to be part of and we hope to return to another Lates event sometime in the future!

The Mad Hatter's Tea-party at Boomtown

Following last year’s success at BoomTown Fair, we returned, alongside the SAW Trust, with an Alice In Wonderland themed delight for the senses, with science, art and writing activities to excite young minds.

Table laid and ready for the first guests to arrive!

Table laid and ready for the first guests to arrive!

Now in its tenth year, BoomTown Fair attracts up to 60, 000 people and many of those came to visit us at Kidztown, with its impressive visual displays and interactive activities for families. 

Our stand entitled “The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” revolved around workshops which had four stations for the children to rotate around. The tea parties began with the mad hatter revealing secret invisible ink messages to the children before the experiments could begin!

The children were tasked with many exciting science-based activities. Tasty treats the children could create included sweet, fizzy sherbet and rapid ice-cream made using an endothermic reaction and flavoured with plant flavourings (vanilla, coconut and strawberry). In addition to these, there were also many pigment-based activities inspired by all the bright colours in Wonderland, for the children to try. Including; natural plant pigment tissue tie-dyes and colour changing flowers and celery. The results of which decorated the tent throughout the weekend.


Carrying on with our use of plant products, the children also got to create their own fruit flavoured jelly balls, using alginate gelling agent, derived from algae, to go with a fizzy drink!

The final activity for the children was to write secret messages, which would be revealed by a new set of children, at the next tea party by the Mad Hatter.

Some of our tea-party guests about to make sweet treats.

Some of our tea-party guests about to make sweet treats.

As well as the tea parties, there were also numerous activities and challenges for the children to engage with while the table was re-set. These activities included using microscopes to explore the microscopic world Alice enters when she shrinks, writing nonsense poems, like those the Mad Hatter recites at his tea party and pinning the grin on the Cheshire cat.

We had a range of craft activities available, providing the children with something to take home with them from their time at BoomTown. The children could make Wonderland inspired flower faces, clock necklaces, a Mad Hatter’s Hat and playing card bowties.

Across the three days the children were able to immerse themselves in a Wonderland of science, art and writing, feeding their curiosity with a range of thrilling experiments and allowing their creativity to run wild with exciting craft projects.

A big thank you to the entire team who helped with the preparations and running of “The Mad Hatters Tea Party” and to BoomTown for having us once again!

By Shannon Woodhouse


Synthetic Biology and the Senses at Cambridge Science Festival, March 2018.

The morning shift: Some of the Cambridge Science Festival 2018 team ready for doors open.

The morning shift: Some of the Cambridge Science Festival 2018 team ready for doors open.

For the third year in a row, OpenPlant teamed up with the SAW Trust and Cambridge Synthetic Biology SRI to deliver a variety of activities on our interactive stand at the Cambridge Science Festival.

While braving the icy ‘pest from the west’ we explored some of the natural products made by plants with those who dared to venture out in the chilly weather. In keeping with this year’s festival theme ‘making sense of our world’, our ‘Synbio and the senses’ stand enabled participants to extract their own plant pigment, learn how plants make proteins and meet the one and only DNA Dave!

Extracting anthocyanin from red cabbage at the Cambridge Science Festival

Extracting anthocyanin from red cabbage at the Cambridge Science Festival

The main activity of the stall involved visitors extracting the anthocyanin pigments from red cabbage, getting hands on with a natural pigment and investigating its sensitivity to pH levels. Children and adults alike, seemed to have great fun pipetting out their cabbage juice, acid (lemon juice) and alkaline (bicarbonate of soda solution) onto discs of filter paper to create their own artworks.

Visitors were excited to take home a worksheet explaining the science behind the pigments, and giving instructions for doing their own extractions and experiments at home. You can find the worksheet here.

Colour Bio-factories - using genetic engineering to boost existing pathways within plants to produce natural pigments.

Colour Bio-factories - using genetic engineering to boost existing pathways within plants to produce natural pigments.

In addition to the pigment extraction, visitors could learn about how researchers in Cathie Martins’ lab at the John Innes Centre are now producing these anthocyanin pigments in plants, using genetic engineering to boost a native pathway. At present there is only one natural blue pigment that is available for food colouring, which is produced from an alga called spirulina. However this blue is not very strong or stable in colour. Therefore, most blue food colourants are chemically produced synthetic compounds. The research conducted by Dr Ingo Appelhagen  in the Martin lab is enabling the discovery of new, more stable, anthocyanins found in nature and the use of plant cell cultures  to produce these more stable forms in larger amounts so that they could be used as non-synthetic colourings. They can generate a range of colours, including bright blues.

Visitors were also able to have a go at putting together their own synthetic biology plant system with the use of an interactive jigsaw game in which they chose a plant species to work with, a site or organ of the plant where they could make something happen, and a signal that would cause it to happen. To complete the game, they could then learn how proteins are made from the instructions in DNA with the help of DNA Dave! DNA Dave is a robot whose mechanics describe the processes of “transcription” and “translation” through which DNA is copied, then read and translated into a protein. As with previous events, DNA Dave was an absolute hit with all the visitors, including his namesake – Sir David Attenborough! Participants were even given the chance to design their own protein that could be used by DNA Dave.

A young visitor to the Cambridge Science Festival designs her own protein.

A young visitor to the Cambridge Science Festival designs her own protein.

DNA Dave helps to explain the production of proteins.

DNA Dave helps to explain the production of proteins.

With visitor numbers reaching 1600 in our marquee alone, the day was a great success with lots of enthusiastic individuals - if a little nippy! A big thank you to all our volunteers from the University of Cambridge and the John Innes Centre, Norwich, who helped on the day and did a great job!

BoomTown Fair, August 2017

Blog post written by Emma McKechnie-Welsch, and reproduced with permission from The SAW Trust. Original blog post can be found here:

Science tent at Kidztown

Science tent at Kidztown

BoomTown Fair is an annual music and arts festival held in Winchester. It attracts up to 60,000 people a year. The festival hosts a wide range of performances across its many stages, providing visually impressive themed areas on-site.

This is also the case with Kidztown, the diverse and interactive family area. OpenPlant and the SAW Trust were key contributors to the Kidztown science tent. Children here were introduced to different natural plant-based products in a fun and engaging way. This included a carefully devised potion-making, craft and spell-writing stand.

The stand, titled "Marvellous Medicines," revolved around our periodic table of natural products. The children were tasked with making a magical potion, picking just one component from each block of the periodic table for their ingredients. The blue block contributed a plant material that would provide the colour pigmentation for the potion, including the magical element of colour change in different pH solutions. The red block contained plants with appealing scents, extracted as essential oils, to give the potion a delightful smell. Finally, the yellow block contained citrus fruit. The citric acid in this can be used to observe the colour change.

Periodic table of plants

Periodic table of plants

Making the Potions

Once the children had selected their ingredients, they ground up the blue item (either red cabbage, berries, turmeric or selected flowers) using a pestle and mortar. They then practised using pipettes, adding 75 percent ethanol to extract the pigment. This was transferred to their potion flask. They next added the essential oil corresponding to their red item and 1 millilitre of bicarbonate of soda solution to observe the first colour change. Last of all, 35 millilitres of citric acid solution was added to create the final colour of their potion. It was explained that citric acid was the compound in citrus fruit that made it taste so sharp.

Whilst a slight fizz was observed upon adding the citric acid, due to it reacting with the bicarbonate of soda, only a very small amount of the bicarb was present. The final step involved adding a green slime of more bicarb mixed with washing up liquid, which caused the potions to fizz over and release the essential oil smell. If the kids wanted an extra colourful potion they also added food colouring gel.

Magical ingredients

Magical ingredients

Colourful results

Colourful results

Making potions

Making potions

Marvellous Medicine's Art and Writing

Artist Molly Barrett helped the children create their own artistic potion bottle, cutting out bottle shapes from cardboard and sticking dried plant products to them. Our writer Ali Pritchard asked the children to think about what they wanted their potion to do, and they wrote a spell to cast over their potion for it to work. This was written on acetate and stuck to their art creation. 

Marvellous Medicines team members

Marvellous Medicines team members

Throughout, the children learned about a plant’s ability to make different compounds that define their features such as colour, scent and taste. They extracted the colour pigment themselves and used other natural extracts to complete their potions, observing how we can use things that plants make for our own products. The older children also learned about pH and colour indicators, a classic chemistry practical they will no doubt carry out in secondary school. A further use for plants was discovered in the art stand: the plant materials could be used as 3D elements to decorate the potion bottles.

The finished potions

The finished potions

The children let their creativity run wild by imagining what their natural product potion could achieve. Whilst compounds produced by plants may not be able to turn glitter into gold or the sea into Ribena, hopefully the children took away the idea that many of the compounds produced within plants can be used in ways they previously hadn't thought about. Not least, the children had lots of fun exploring ideas around magical plant extracts and many of the children returned to the stand later on.

Marvellous Medicines couldn’t have been a success without the hard-working team, who over three days helped the children through all the tasks. A big thank you goes to the team and to BoomTown for having us!

The Marvellous Medicines Team

The Marvellous Medicines Team

Plant Science SAW projects at Tunstead primary School

Guest blog from Emma McKechnie-Welsch, a PhD student from the John Innes Centre who spent three months doing an internship in Science Engagement with OpenPlant and the SAW Trust.


Plant Science SAW projects at Tunstead primary School

Arabidopsis apical meristem. Image by Emma McKechnie-Welsch

Arabidopsis apical meristem. Image by Emma McKechnie-Welsch

My name is Emma and I am a PhD student working in the Cell and Developmental Biology department at the John Innes Centre. My research looks at genes functioning to facilitate controlled plant growth and development from the shoot apical meristem in Professor Robert Sablowski’s research group. My PhD funding from the BBSRC includes a three month work placement and I was keen to gain experience in science communication and outreach so arranged a joint placement with OpenPlant and the SAW trust.

On my placement I had the opportunity to design two SAW projects to discuss science relevant to my research with primary school children at Tunstead primary school. For the year 1/2 class I worked with writer Julia Webb and artist Lara Nicole and the aim was to get children thinking about the functions of different parts of a plant. For the year 5/6 class I was worked with writer Mike O’Driscoll and artist Chris Hann with a day themed around plant evolution.


We used scientific images at the start of the day to catalyse inquisitiveness about the science we were going to explore, and provide inspiration for the poetry and art sessions.


Practical Science with Year 1/2

Build a plant game, played with year 1/2 class

Build a plant game, played with year 1/2 class

To start off the lesson we played a “build a plant” game to get more familiar with the main parts of a plant, their function, and what plants use from their environment to grow. Each child also put a cut flower in coloured water to think about the use of the stem. Then the children were given a selection of fruit and vegetables and asked to decide what part of the plant each came from. They were given a flower to look more closely at the reproductive parts and think about how seeds are formed by pollination. Finally, they looked at different types of seeds in a seed kit and we discussed the different types of seed dispersal tactics plants use.


Practical Science with Year 5/6

The children dissected plants to look up close at the reproductive parts under the microscope.

The children dissected plants to look up close at the reproductive parts under the microscope.

We began by guessing the number of different plant species on earth and the children suggested why plants are useful. In groups, they were given cards representing each component of photosynthesis and had to arrange them to think about the process. We covered pollination and its importance for increasing genetic variation.

The children dissected plants to look up close at the reproductive parts under the microscope. I covered different types of seed dispersal and the importance of varying environmental conditions for evolution. Then children carried out DNA extraction from strawberries after learning a bit about what DNA was and how important it was in controlling the appearance of the plant, with a single mutation in a gene coding region potentially greatly changing this. Following on from DNA extraction there was a game to match the numbers of genes to different organisms.



After the morning science sessions the children had poetry and art sessions based on the content. Here are some poems and images from the Year 5/6 group (age 10/11):

Poem 1.png
Yr 6 art work.jpg
Poem 1.png


The Year 1/2 children (age 4/5) wrote poems as if they were a seed growing up, and made flower hand puppets after designing a flower:

sock puppets.jpg

The children really engaged with the scientific learning aspect of the day which was great. Lots of the children thought about the questions I asked to the classes and gave insightful answers, as well as wanting to ask questions throughout the lesson/ activities. When asked about their favourite part of the day, at least half the children listed specific sections of the science morning.

The poems produced by the year 5/6 children really showcased the children’s interest in understanding genetics and how growth and development of organisms are controlled. The younger children were enthusiastic about looking at different types of seeds, bringing back different types they had found in their school grounds at break time to show me. It was great for them to think about the different stages of growth a plant goes through from seed to eventually producing a flower, including difficulties different environmental conditions could cause, while writing their poems.

The children were really excited about getting to do an afternoon of art although the activities designed weren’t quite as expected. The art didn’t centre around drawing on paper but producing 3D art pieces. The younger children gave lots of personality to their individual hand puppets and used them to help communicate their poetry whilst the older children focused on the scientific pictures provided and gave interpretations of pollen and seed dispersal, as well as the protective mechanism of the cactus.

From this experience, I could see how integration of science with writing and art can help children associate science more closely with creative thought, rather than a regimented, inflexible learning process, which makes the subject inaccessible to some children. The teachers were impressed with the pieces the children managed to produce and the level of thought about scientific processes they reached, which I think was largely down to the different approach to education SAW days take.

My OpenPlant Experience: Outreach, Engagement and 3D printing

Guest blog post by Roger Castells-Graells about his OpenPlant Fund project “Accessible 3D Models of Molecules”. Roger recently won a UEA Engagement Award in recognition of the work he has done both with OpenPlant and beyond.


PhD student Roger Castells-Graells in the lab

PhD student Roger Castells-Graells in the lab

My name is Roger and I am a PhD student in Prof. George Lomonossoff’s lab at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. My research project is about the production of virus-like particles to understand viral dynamics for future applications and to generate new bionanotechnological tools. I have a passion for science communication and public engagement and I have had numerous opportunities to communicate my science in Norwich, the UK and abroad since the start of my PhD.

My OpenPlant experience started in September 2016, when I attended a great Co-Lab workshop organized by the Open Science School and funded by an OpenPlant Fund. With this opportunity I had the chance to interact with scientists from different fields and also with designers and artists. It was an enriching experience and we developed a project called VRICKS (Virus Bricks) that aimed to generate tools to explain viruses in educational ways, like for example with paper models.

Following up from this workshop, in October 2016, I organized an activity for the Norwich Science Festival, together with Jenni Rant (The SAW Trust) and Colette Matthewman (OpenPlant), where we recreated the assembly of proteins into a virus protein coat using materials like paper and plastic, which represented the subunits of the virus. The public contributed to the assembly of a virus model, they learnt about related research from the Lomonossoff lab and they took home a build-at-home model. Over one hundred people participated in the activity during the weekend, making it a roaring success.

Presenting the virus activity and engaging with people at the Norwich Science Festival

Presenting the virus activity and engaging with people at the Norwich Science Festival

Following up with the interest to build tools to explain biological processes, such as virus assembly, I decided to apply for and OpenPlant Fund with the project “Accessible 3D Models of Molecules”. The project team is a multidisciplinary team (molecular biology, bioinformatics and engineering) of students from JIC and University of Cambridge and with this fund we are developing models of viruses and proteins using 3D printing technologies.

3D printed virus models for the OpenPlant Fund project  
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3D printed virus models for the OpenPlant Fund project

Recently I presented some of the virus models in a high school with students aged 12 to 16 years old. The students enjoyed being able to handle and compare representations of real virus structures and were amazed that some of these structures were only discovered this year. When the school teacher was asked about how the use of educational 3D models in the classroom could benefit the learning process he answered that first of all it creates excitement and focuses the attention of the students. It is something completely new! It contributes to the understanding of three-dimensional models and gives the students a better sense of the reality of the object. Furthermore, it allows the students to calculate scale as it is possible to touch, measure and compare different models.

I was invited to speak at the Pint of Science Festival in Norwich in May, and gave a talk entitled “20000 Leagues under the microscope: Viruses & Nanomachines”. At the event, I passed around several models of 3D printed viruses and the public loved having the opportunity to handle them. It was a great experience and we received really positive feedback. I want to thank the organizers of Pint of Science for such a great event!

As a result of all of these activities, I was recently awarded a UEA Engagement Award 2016/17 for contribution to Public & Community Engagement, which I am very proud of.

      Norwich Pint of Science Festival tweets



Norwich Pint of Science Festival tweets

Roger tweets2b.png

With thanks to my supervisor Prof. George Lomonossoff, OpenPlant and all the people that have helped, encouraged me and opened up opportunities in this last year.

Cambridge Science Festival Stand 2.0 – Improved Design!

A family discover how proteins are made following instructions in the DNA, with the help of Nadia Radzman and DNA Dave the robot.

A family discover how proteins are made following instructions in the DNA, with the help of Nadia Radzman and DNA Dave the robot.

In 2016 we designed a new stand for the Cambridge Science Festival and were delighted with the excellent feedback and the award won by the plant and life sciences marquee where our stand and team scored exceptionally highly with a 94.3% public approval rating! We decided to build on the game we had developed, using cardboard boxes, which explains the process of transcription and translation into something bigger and better (and more professional!). We applied for an Outreach Grant from the Biochemical Society to enable us to work with a designer to realise our ultimate game and were delighted to be successful! In December 2016 a group of enthusiastic scientists met with designer Molly Barrett to begin work. Scientists Ioannis Tamvakis and Nadia Radzman provided excellent ideas for representing the scientific process, and coding an arduino to build in the electronic outputs we wanted and then the build began and at the beginning of March we were introduced to DNA Dave, the robot! 

We were very excited to give Dave his debut at the 2017 Cambridge Science Festival and we were not disappointed! The public were really keen to see what the robot could do and the process of transcription and translation of DNA to proteins was very well explained by operating Dave’s buttons, cogs and switches. We will be taking Dave to future events and he is also available for hire! You can follow his travels on Twitter using #DNAdave.

The team celebrate the end of an excellent day.

The team celebrate the end of an excellent day.

OpenPlant stand at the first Norwich Science Festival

Roger Castells-Graells showing off the 80-sided virus structure built with the creative help of lots of kids at Norwich Science Festival.

Roger Castells-Graells showing off the 80-sided virus structure built with the creative help of lots of kids at Norwich Science Festival.

In October 2016, Norwich hosted its first ever two-week long science festival. The event was a huge success and attracted an estimated 100,000 visitors. One weekend was dedicated to showcasing research from the Norwich Research Park, entitled ‘solving problems with science’ and the local OpenPlant team took the ‘Power of Plants’ stand that was originally designed and run at the Latitude Festival earlier in the year. We were joined for a day by Dr Katrin Geisler from the University of Cambridge to highlight the 'Power of Algae'.

In addition to this, we were joined by John Innes Centre scientist Roger Castells-Graells who brought his new project ‘VRICKS’ that was created at a recent OpenPlant Co-Lab interdisciplinary science design workshop. This extra activity fitted well alongside the hypertrans plant expression system game which used the example of making flu vaccines in plants. The concept of VRICKS is a resource for building 3D virus structures to explore the biology and the geometry of viral organisms. However, for the festival we wanted to draw on the strengths of people power to build a giant virus structure where everyone who visited the stand was able to make one piece!

Working together to plan and deliver at public events is a great team exercise for scientists to think about how best to translate their research using practical tasks and accessible dialogue. Taking time to explore your work with the public builds understanding and trust in the value of research and is particularly rewarding to do in your local city.  We are very much looking forward to the 2017 Norwich Science Festival!

A moment of calm checking the exhibit before the public arrive.

A moment of calm checking the exhibit before the public arrive.

Synthetic Biology at Cambridge Science Festival gets a special mention at Cambridge BID Awards 2016

The Plant and Life Sciences Marquee was a roaring success at Cambridge Science Festival, scooping a prize at the Cambridge BID awards Awards 2016. OpenPlant's synthetic biology stand was highly rated by the public mystery shoppers and got a special mention in their final report!

OpenPlant offered a glimpse into synthetic biology at the Cambridge Science Festival and also showcased open technologies for science by demonstrated open source hardware developed with support from the OpenPlant Fund and SynBio Fund.

Making some weird and wonderful biological circuits
Making some weird and wonderful biological circuits

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 and by applying this idea to biology the public made weird and wonderful new lifeforms like a cat whose nose turns purple when a disease is nearby or a sprouts that taste of strawberries when it snows.

Cambridge Science Festival conducted some ‘Mystery Shopping’ as part of its evaluation strategy in 2016 and our home, The Plant and Life Sciences Marquee, was one of several weekend, hands-on spaces that were visited by evaluators. Our stand and team scored exceptionally highly with a 94.3% public approval rating!

The marquee was honoured at the 2016 CambridgeBID (Business Improvement District) Awards and Elisabeth Burmeister of the Sainsbury Laboratory collected the award on behalf of all the volunteers and sponsors who made the event a success.

Congratulations to all of the OpenPlant and SynBio SRI student and Faculty members involved!


The Power of Plants: OpenPlant visits Latitude Festival

A team of OpenPlant Scientists from the John Innes Centre, the University of Cambridge, and collaborators from Imperial College and University College London worked together to deliver an exciting range of activities for families visiting the Kids Area at Latitude Festival in July 2016. Latitude is a mixed arts festival that attracts over 10,000 visitors a year, who enjoy the rich mix of thought-provoking performances and interactive workshops. Our stand, entitled ‘The Power of Plants’, was an exhibit that led visitors on a journey looking at traditional uses of plants, how plant selective breeding has produced the food crops that we recognise today, tracking the evolution of our relationship with plants through science to introduce the synthetic biology approach, and some of the modern uses of plants and algae that bioengineering enables.

Activities included leaf printing to explore variation in the brassica family, a pairs game to match modern crop varieties to their ancient ancestors, pigment extraction and making bath bombs to explore traditional uses of plants and the chemicals they produce, infiltrating tobacco leaves (with water) to learn how scientists introduce new DNA into plants and to discover how vaccines can be made in plants. The second half of the display focussed on algae and visitors learnt about algae and it’s many uses (including the variety of algae-derived pigments used in food), seeing an algae printer in action (created by designer Marin Sawa), learning about bioreactors and measuring algal cell density using a mobile phone app (both bioreactor and app were developed as part of the OpenPlant Fund project: Big Algae Open Experiment), and learning about the difference between a lemon battery and electric currents produced by algae and plants. We exhibited both plants and algae that had been wired up so that the current could be measured with a volt meter.

We had a hugely positive response, both to the science exhibited and to the aesthetics of our stand which was covered in plants, algae bioreactors, science related graphics, and fronted by 5 beautiful giant willow flowers created by Mat Rant, and decorated by the OpenPlant team.

Our stand even smelt good, thanks to the 100s of lavender bath bombs that were being made. Though the smell at times became a little too much for our volunteers who had to step out of the tent for some fresh air and a coffee to counter the sleep-inducing effects of the lavender!

If you want to have a go yourself at pigment extraction and creating electricity from plants, Co-Lab and OpenPlant have teamed up to run a weekend workshop in September 2016 to bring together scientists, designers, and anyone else with an interest to develop new project ideas:

A Big Algae Open Experiment blog post can be found here.

Many thanks to all volunteers:
Colette Matthewman (OpenPlant, John Innes Centre, Norwich), Jenni Rant (The SAW Trust, Norwich), Alys Barr (OpenPlant, John Innes Centre, Norwich), Michael Stephenson (OpenPlant, John Innes Centre, Norwich), Dorota Jakubczyk (O’Connor Lab, John Innes Centre, Norwich), Matt Heaton (John Innes Centre, Norwich), Daisy Rant (Norwich), Paolo Bombelli (Big Algae Open Experiment, University of Cambridge), Brenda Parker (Big Algae Open Experiment, University College London), Marc Jones (Big Algae Open Experiment, John Innes Centre, Norwich), Marin Sawa (Algal printer, Imperial College London), Katrin Geisler (Smith Lab, University of Cambridge).

Blog post written by: Colette Matthewman
Photos by: Matt Heaton and Alys Barr


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

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

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 –

Ethics, Openness, Outreach and the Media course – SAW session

Above:   Nicotiana benthamiana  by Aymeric Leveau (JIC), image  NRP-103 : licenced under  CC-BY 4.0.    Below:  Artwork created by a scientists, inspired by above image of  Nicotiana benthamiana

Above: Nicotiana benthamiana by Aymeric Leveau (JIC), image NRP-103: licenced under CC-BY 4.0.

Below: Artwork created by a scientists, inspired by above image of Nicotiana benthamiana

As part of a workshop for post docs on ethics, the media, openness and outreach the participants were treated to an after-dinner Science Art and Writing session at St Andrews Brewhouse in Norwich. The session began with a discussion about communicating with the public and then focused in on specialised communication, something scientists do very well! Writer Mike O’Driscoll then introduced the group to other styles of communication and encouraged them to write poetry to explore new ways of getting messages across. 

Artist Chris Hann then led an art activity on the theme of plants to encourage creative interpretation and sharing of science. This activity not only introduced new ways of approaching outreach but also gave the scientists time to reflect on the key messages and aims of their work and how they might express that and also sitting around the table exercising their artistic sides led to a vibrant level of creative exchange which was very refreshing.



Short poems from scientists

Short poems from scientists

OpenPlant Science, Art and Writing Workshop a success

Year 6 pupils at Stapleford Community Primary School (South Cambs) enjoyed an OpenPlant ­ Science, Art and Writing Trust day workshop at the end of January. Scientists Dr. Carlos A Lugo (TSL) and Marielle Vigouroux (JIC), together with SAW Trust coordinator, Dr. Jenni Rant (JIC), artist Chris Hann and writer Mike O’Driscoll, presented their OpenPlant Fund plant electrophysiology project through a series of activities themed around excitable media and circuits of plants, linking them to biological systems like the brain, heart and muscle.

The pupils used the Plant SpikerShield system wired up to a Venus flytrap plant and observed the signal when the trap closed. They also had fun working out the optimum time lapse between trigger hair taps for the trap to shut, flexed their muscles to light a bulb, listened to their heartbeat and tested brain signalling with Chinese whispers. With the invaluable help from a professional writer and artist, children were inspired by the science to write some amazing poems and create fantastic pieces of art. The children were very receptive, everyone had lots of fun and the feedback was incredibly positive. A big thank you to Ms Emma Wright, the year 6 teacher, for her warm welcome and her enthusiasm towards the project!

Comments from the kids;

‘In Science, I really enjoyed the reflex activity where we did Chinese whispers and were shining lights into our eyes to see how they react. Also, the venus fly trap was incredible, the way it would close if something tickles the hair inside’.

‘I enjoyed doing the science where I had sensors stuck to my arm, then I would tense my muscles to make the lights go red’.

‘I enjoyed the images of neurons and recreating them with dye, the result was rather satisfying. It was also fun doing the poetry’.

A comment from the teacher, Emma Wright;

The SAW day was fantastic. Throughout the day the children were all engaged with the variety of activities. The children also learnt a lot from the subject specialists that showed their subjects in a new light. Equally the children and teachers alike picked up hints and tips that could be used in the classroom again. I would highly recommend this for anyone.

Poems written in the workshop;


by Ben

Icy, sapphire neurons racing around colliding,

Whispering Venus fly traps with dagger-like hairs,

Spearing out jaggedly.

A stampede of colours like two universes amalgamating,

A heartbeat,

Boom…..boom boom…….boom boom,

A vortex of multicolour zooms around in an oyster shape,

A scene of Africa with a paisley pattern confuses the brain.



by Elijah

Pumping message swirling

Across rainbow chaos,

Pumping high to low,


X-ray signal making waves,

Tubes linking, waving sea into my brain.

OpenPlant stand at Festival of Plants

Cambridge University’s Botanic Garden hosts a Festival of Plants in May that provides the public with an opportunity to explore the diversity of flora and also find out how this important resource contributes to scientific plant research locally and globally. 

We presented accessible activities to explain some of our research goals and how they might impact on society. 

Through taking time to explain and discuss our projects at events such as this, people feel more confident to take a positive interest in the process and potential outcomes. It also gives us an opportunity to hear people’s thoughts on our research goals that we can then reflect upon. 

SAW Project at Ludham Primary School

Scientific images used for Ludham Primary School project

Scientific images used for Ludham Primary School project

Dr Colette Matthewman, project manager of OpenPlant, Norwich, worked with writer Mike O'Driscoll and artist Chris Hann to design and deliver a brand new SAW project with a year 5 class at Ludham Primary School. SAW projects extend science learning into poetry and art, inviting children to generate personal responses to the science concepts where they discover new perspectives of the world and broaden their horizons.

Children got hands-on with DNA extraction, played a game to learn Mendel's Laws of Inheritance and were shown how model plants such as the simple liverwort Marchantia enable scientists to study traits that are found in more complex plant species.

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The poetry session produced some excellent work that reflected the children's understanding of the link between DNA and genetic differences. The children learned about root nodules during the science session and so the art used these structures as a starting point for work with oil pastels, glue, salt and colour pigments. Root nodules are specialised structures produced as a result of a symbiosis between certain plant species and bacteria in the soil that enable the plant to fix atmospheric nitrogen, giving plants a significant advantage in nitrogen poor soils.

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