—Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT Center for Bits + Atoms and founder of the course “How to Make (Almost) Anything.”
Imagine a future where students not only learn about biology, but also make and design with biology—from prototyping bio-molecules for curing diseases, engineering biological computers, and printing biomaterials for our sustainable future. These ideas are possible now and explored in the course “How to Grow (Almost) Anything” at the MIT Media Lab.
From dinosaur to flower, human to bacteria, weed to a cute little kitten, living organisms are some of the most diverse, beautiful, and efficient systems in the world. Throughout history and culture, humanity has been collaborating with nature and harnessing biology as a form of technology to make food, medicine, clothing, buildings, and more. Arguably, biotechnology is one of the most ancient and yet the most powerful technology to humankind.
My name is Pat. I am a graduate student in the MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces group. I participated in the new MIT class called “How to Grow (Almost) Anything” (HTGAAT) this semester. I had known David Kong, the lead instructor of the class, for a while as one of the best DJs of the Media Lab, and as the beloved director of the MIT Media Lab Community Biotech Initiative. When I heard of the class, I had no doubt that it would be as cool and hip as his hiphop music. Our class is also co-taught by Professor Joseph Jacobson from the MIT Media Lab, and Professor George Church from Harvard Medical School, as well as Suryateja Jammalamadaka, Noah Jakimo, and Pranam Chatterjee as student TAs.
The class introduced students from all backgrounds to the emerging areas of biodesign, biotechnology, and synthetic biology, enabling the students to unleash their creativity with biological tools and living palates. Each week, there was a central theme that the class focused on, accompanied by an inspirational guest lecture, recitation, and a lab session on that topic. The hands-on lab session is probably the most exciting part of the class, because we got to play with a variety of cutting-edge techniques and tools, which we can use for our final project. Throughout the semester, we did many fascinating experiments that I would never have thought could be packed together in one class, from gene cloning to bio-printing, protein design to microfluidic fabrication, microbiome sequencing to CRISPR, and more.
The class is also deeply committed to the democratization of biotechnology; therefore, the materials of the class and experimental protocols are open source and available online. The “How to Grow (Almost) Anything” course was inspired by the philosophy of the MIT class by Professor Neil Gershenfeld called “How to Make (Almost) Anything.” Through the many years that Professor Gershenfeld empowered students to express their creativity through fabrication tools such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and more, he discovered that personal fabrication tools are not for making products that people can buy in the supermarket, but rather to create things that make each individual unique! The goal for the “How to Grow Almost Anything” class is very similar in the sense that the class does not aim to convert students to become biologists, but rather to inspire students to use biotechnology as tools that could be combined with other disciplines to create something unique that traditional biologists would never think of.
When it comes to biotechnology, people usually think of crazy scientists creating zombies, GMOs, or bio-weapons—but that is the opposite of our class. One of the fundamental questions of the class is how might we do science with responsibility. This question has been discussed and reflected on throughout the semester. Further, the class promoted the culture of transparency in science, where all students must document every process and experiment done in the class to keep our biotech lesson accessible to people outside the class. Check out this website to see a little documentation of what my awesome teammates and I did in the class.
In a way, having a class like this is democratizing biotechnology for people across all walks of life, as the class not only accepted students from science backgrounds, but was also open to people with different interests and expertise; my fellow classmates are artists, designers, computer scientists, musicians, ethnographers, conservationists, and even beekeepers.
At the end of the semester, we had a chance to combine all the knowledge that we had learned from the amazing guest speakers and weekly lab experiments into a final project. Our “BioFluid Interfaces” group, including my teammates Judith Amores and Oscar Rosello, had a lot of fun working on the encapsulation of genetically engineered bacteria inside hand cream as the future of bio-computer technology on the body.
I believe that a class like this could become the model for biology in future classrooms, where students are empowered to use biology as a creative tool to bring their imagination to reality, with social responsibility in mind. As the founding director of the MIT Media Lab Nicholas Negroponte predicted: “Biotech is the new digital.” The “How to Grow (Almost) Anything” class is the classroom that launches the new biological era of the Media Lab!