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The comic book that can explain synthetic biology to anyone

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Want to understand how synthetic biology might change the world? Here's a scientific video for you. Too much? But wait, there's also a comic book . . .

Over at science e-book review site Download the Universe, Carl Zimmer has an interesting review of a new paper from synthetic biologist Drew Endy, as well as a comic book that Endy created a few years ago to introduce kids to synbio. Writes Zimmer:

Drew Endy has made a notable effort to introduce synthetic biology both to his fellow scientists and to the public, and so he did something unusual when he and his colleagues published their new paper today: he published a video in the supplementary material in which Endy describes what they've done and what it means.

And rather than keep the video hidden behind a subscription paywall, Endy posted it on YouTube [see above].

If you're not familiar with both transcription factors and Boolean logic, this video may fail to enlighten. Endy seems to be aware of this, because midway through the video, he refers viewers to a comic book that he and his colleagues put together, called Introducing Synthetic Biology.

The comic book first appeared in 2005 in a special issue of Nature in which Endy and a number of other researchers offered overviews of synthetic biology and discussed the ethical issues raised by rewiring life. At the time, Nature posted the comic book online in a Flash version. You can still see it in that form, but I wouldn't recommended it. Eight years later, it feels cramped and tiny. But Endy has posted it online as a free PDF, where it still feels fresh and informative.

Introducing Synthetic Biology embeds lessons about the fundamentals of the field in a comic book story. Its heroes are a grown-up scientist and a boy whose experiments with bacteria she oversees. Artist Chuck Wadey gives the narrative a stylish, quasi-psychedelic feel. The boy eagerly tries to rejigger the bacteria to fill with gas and become floating balloons, and along the way he realizes how hard it is—but also how vast the possibilities are for synthetic biology.

This is a smart, savvy piece of science writing. Endy has long focused much of his outreach at young people. In 2003, he helped found the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, which brought together college kids (and eventually high schoolers) to carry out experiments in synthetic biology and compete for prizes. Rather than just trying to get some old folks in charge of government and private funding to rethink how they support biotechnology research, Endy has for the past decade helped to produce hundreds of new synthetic biologists. They live the story that Introducing Synthetic Biology tells. If you (or your kids, if you've got any) want to learn about the nuts and bolts of synthetic biology, this is an excellent place to start.


Read the rest of Zimmer's article here. Download the PDF of Endy's comic here.

Disclosure: I'm a contributor to Download the Universe.