In particular, we were looking at:
- The demand for a children’s product in this genre
- The respondents’ level of science education
- How strongly people agreed or disagreed with 7 points:
- I would allow my child to have an educational toy that needed to be fed and looked after once a day with my supervision.
- I would allow my child to have an educational toy that incorporates E.coli bacteria.
- I would allow my child to have an educational toy that incorporates genetically modified bacteria.
- I would allow my child to have an educational toy that incorporates bacteria.
- All strains of E.coli are dangerous.
- E.coli regularly exists in my body.
- If these genetically modified bacteria were accidentally swallowed by someone, they would become dangerously ill.
For the 7 opinion points, we first assessed how they felt about them as it stood in that moment with their current level of knowledge on the subject, then allowed them to read more information about the bacteria we were using in our project:
What is 'synthetic biology'?
Synthetic biology is a branch of biology that combines the powers of biotechnology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, systems biology, biophysics, computer engineering, and genetic engineering (to name but a few) in order to construct 'biological devices' or 'machines' that are useful for solving problems - anything from something as trivial as chewing gum on the streets to solving climate change.
What are e.coli?
E.coli bacteria are commonly found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded organisms (in other words, you and I!) where they make up the normal flora of the gut, produce vitamin K2, and prevent dangerous bacteria from growing. Most strains of e.coli are completely harmless, however there are one or two types that cause serious food poisoning - because of this, many people understandably assume that just because it's called 'e.coli', it must be very harmful, however this isn't the case! In our labs, classes and research, we use e.coli as they grow quickly and are easy to look after. The bacteria we use are a 'lab strain' which means we know exactly what their genotype is (the full set of genes present in the organism), and any and all dangerous genes or features that could cause it to infect humans and cause illness have been removed.
What are you doing to it?
Over the summer we have been working on taking bioluminescence genes out of a bacterium called Aliivibrio fischeri and genes from a cyanobacterium called Synechocystis that can detect UV-A light from the sun, and placing them in our e.coli cells. When combined with some other standard genetic parts, the result is e.coli bacteria that glow when it's dark!
What are you using it for?
Our project involves designing a toy nightlight for children based around the idea of a "friendly monster", i.e. one that scares away the bad monsters under the bed! This would involve a stuffed monster toy, inside which would be a clear plastic container that would hold our bacteria. Every morning the child, with parental supervision, would turn a tap at the base of the toy, and the nutrient solution containing the bacteria would drop out of the bottom into the toilet to be flushed away. The handle of the tap connects via a key slot so that curious children can't open it and spill everything everywhere on their own. The child can then "feed" their monster friend by pouring fresh nutrient solution into their mouth, which passes through a tube through a one-way valve down into the main part of the vessel, so that if it were dropped or accidentally turned upside down the bacteria and solution would stay inside. There would be enough bacterial residue stuck to the inside of the container to allow them to repopulate during the day while the child is at school or nursery. Once they no longer detect the UV-A from the sun, the bioluminescence system becomes activated and they will begin to glow. At night the child would give the monster a gentle shake, which would allow oxygen to distribute more evenly among the bacteria encouraging brighter, more even bioluminescence.
Kids are mischievous and curious, what if they tried to eat it?
The bacteria are harmless, as is the nutrient solution they'd be in. The environment in the stomach would kill them immediately. However, it wouldn't taste very nice at all, which may cause them to bring it back up. Ultimately the child would come to no lasting harm and would not require professional medical treatment, just a big glass of water to get rid of the taste.