Engineering Algae: Frontiers in Biotechnology

Liz Specht
University of Colorado BioFrontiers Institute
Science Discovery Teen Cafe


Authored by M. Goosman, Youth Leader
Since the 1980s, the technology of genetic engineering has drastically shaped the way we produce medicines, harvest farm crops, and perform research. At this Teen Café, we discussed what genetic engineering is, how it is currently being used, and potential future applications. Our guest researcher, Liz Specht of the CU BioFrontiers Institute, talked about how she’s using these “high-tech” methods to make “low-tech” diagnostics – to develop new ways of detecting disease in isolated settings lacking access to sophisticated lab equipment. She involved the students in a vibrant discussion on the various applications for bioengineering such as the production of GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

More About GMO’s

A genetically modified organism, or GMO, is an organism that has had its DNA altered or modified in some way through genetic engineering.

In most cases, GMOs have been altered with DNA from another organism, be it a bacterium, plant, virus or animal; these organisms are sometimes referred to as “transgenic” organisms. A genefrom a spider that helps the arachnid produce silk, for example, could be inserted into the DNA of an ordinary goat.

That may sound far-fetched, but that exact process was used to breed goats that produce silk proteins in their goat milk. The milk is then harvested and the silk protein is isolated to make a lightweight, ultra-strong silk with a wide range of industrial and medical uses.

Hands on Activity

The activity for this Café was a series of design challenges that allowed groups of teens to try the molecular engineering design process themselves. Dr. Specht began by describing the various molecular tools that one can use to design a new protein, cause an existing region of DNA to be expressed in a novel organism, or to create a protein that would then react in a particular way depending on the environment in which it is expressed. The tools she said that the students could use were analogous to Lego bricks. The main kinds of Legos they would have to manipulate in order to solve the challenges were: Targeting Domains, Sensor Domains, Action Domains, and Reporter Domains. Having described each of those domains, she presented small groups of students with a deck of customized playing cards that had various types of each of those domains described on them, and they were color coded as to which of the four types they were. She then issued a series of challenges and students worked to build DNA regions that would encode for proteins to solve the challenges. For example, “Your challenge is to engineer a neuron (brain cell) in which you can control its signaling using light.” After adequate time for students to arrange their cards in a formation that would encode for a solution, groups shared what they had decided to build, and the whole group discussed various solutions as well as the “answer” at which Dr. Specht had arrived.