Team:KU Leuven/Practices/Education


The next generations need to be informed about the possibilities of synthetic biology. That is why we introduced children in three primary schools (10 to 12 years old) into synthetic biology. We started the lessons by giving a brief introduction into biology and synthetic biology. After that, the children could play a game built around the DNA codon table. The goal of this game was to teach the children about DNA translation and mutations in a playful way.

Codon table

Figure 1
The codon table used during school visits. Click to enlarge

Codon table

Figure 2
The sticker code table for the game used during school visits. Click to enlarge

The game consists of two parts. During the first part, the children were given the so called "Professor Robben" sequence. Using the DNA codon table shown in Figure 1, the children translated the DNA. Colored wooden blocks symbolizing the amino acids had to be arranged into the correct protein sequence. The blocks where made in the KU Leuven's FabLab and painted by hand ourselves. During the second stage of the game, the children continued by mutating the DNA sequence. The players could obtain a new sticker if the DNA mutations matched the protein sequence on the sticker table shown in Figure 2. In the movies, you can see how they play the first and the second game, and how it feels for them to be a real scientist.

A scientist does not regularly get the opportunity to share his/her passion for science with society, especially not with children. From one perspective, it is important to educate kids at young age about the importance of (synthetic) biology. Prejudices about synthetic biology can slowly be dissolved and the public opinion can be directed towards a more open-minded mindset by introducing children at a young age to these topics. On the other hand, it is amazing to see how enthusiastically children dive into the world of synthetic biology when challenged with a DNA-based puzzle game. The students filled the room with ‘ATACGATCATG’, ‘green, red, yellow’ and energetically tried to collect as many stickers as possible. Some groups even ‘codon-optimized’ the sequences by combining the wooden bricks with a correct sequence. It is heartwarming to experience the eagerness with which they perform their task. Even more so when the young pupils reveal that after this experience, they would like to become scientists.

Our self-designed stickers that were used during the school visits. They represent all the team members and their main function

Astrid Eline Frederik Ines

Japster Laetitia Laura Laurens

Leen Moritz Ovia Thomas

VinnieVD Kasia Johan Two

Card game

This year we conducted a survey to study the knowledge of the Belgian society about synthetic biology. This led to the conclusion that the general public knows very little of synthetic biology, or about bacteria in general.

We decided to do something about this by making people more acquainted with terms of synthetic biology. At the same time, we also wanted to introduce them to the principles of our own project. A problem that often arises with this kind of goal, is that traditional methods often are too complicated or too boring. It is important to keep the people’s attention high and to repeat the information so people will remember it. This is why we came up with the idea of introducing some general terms of synthetic biology in the form of a game.

The major advantage of using a game is that the content becomes less boring and people will be more excited to learn it. Another advantage is the spacing effect. This psychological term means that humans are more eager to remember or learn items when they are repeated over a long time span, rather than studied in a short span of time. Researchers have found that spaced learning schedules promote both simple and complex generalization.[1] Playing a card game will have this effect and will thus be more effective than traditional methods.

We designed a card game where every card is based on a biological principle and contains a sentence with information about that principle. Every card also explains its role in the game. This decreases the complexity of the game, since players do not need to memorise every rule.

The end result was the game “Strains”. In this game the players take over the role of an E. coli bacterium on a petri dish. The bacteria need to make patterns, based on Plasmid cards. There are three sorts of plasmid cards: 3-bars, 4-bars and 5-bars, which are worth respectively 1,2 and 3 points. The more complex (longer) the pattern, the more points it is worth.

Plasmid 5 Plasmid 11 Plasmid 24

The players have to use fluorescent proteins to make the patterns. There are three fluorescent proteins: YFP, GFP and RFP. By playing this cards in the right order according to the Plasmid cards, you can earn points. The first player to get 10 points wins the game.


There are also action cards that the bacterium can use in its own advantage or to sabotage the other bacteria. The virus (VIR) card infects an other bacterium, so you can pick a card from somebody else. The tumble (TUM) card changes the direction of the game and the minimal medium (MIN) card makes the next player to wait a turn.

Virus Tumble Minimal medium

But the bacteria can also protect themselves against action cards with the counter action cards. With the CRISPER/CAS9 (CRS) card, you can protect yourself against viruses. The autotrophy (AUT) card gives the ability to synthesize its own food, so that you do not have to skip a turn.

CRISPR-CAS Autotrophy

The bacteria also have to evade the antibiotic cards. Ampicillin (AMP), Chloramphenicol (CAM), Tetracycline (TCN) and Kanamycin (KAN) are deadly antibiotics that kill the bacteria. So, when you draw one of these cards, it is GAME OVER, unless..

Ampicillin Chloramphenicol Tetracycline Kanamycin

The only way to survive the antibiotic cards is the resistance (RES) card. The resistance card protects himself against antibiotics. Unfortunately, when you have an antibiotics card without having a resistance one, you die and you lose one of your dearly earned plasmid cards and all the cards in your hand.


There are also action other cards like LVA, Metabolic Stop, YAY and so on, which add other small dynamics to the game. You can download the complete rules here . We plan to turn this game into a Kickstarter project to print and distribute the game among interested people.


[1] Vlach, Haley A. ; Sandhofer, Catherine M. Distributing Learning Over Time: The Spacing Effect in Children’s Acquisition and Generalization of Science Concepts Child Development, 83(4): 1137-1144, 2012. [ DOI ]


Address: Celestijnenlaan 200G room 00.08 - 3001 Heverlee
Telephone: +32(0)16 32 73 19