Questions for ‘Synthetic biology aims to tackle disease or give cells new superpowers’ 

Here’s an artist’s concept of what a nano-robot might look like as it attempts to repair damaged proteins in a cell. Tiny machines such as these may one day repair broken cell machinery.

Valentina Kruchinina/iStock/Getty Images Plus

To accompany Synthetic biology aims to tackle disease or give cells new superpowers’  


Before Reading:

  1. Briefly define fo what a machine is. Then, find a partner and compare definitions. Do you think your definitions are more similar than they are different, or more different than they are similar? Explain your answer by identifying similarities or differences in your two definitions. 
  2. Consider a cell that makes up part of the lining of your stomach and compare that cell with a nerve cell in your spinal cord. What are two ways that these cells must differ? (Hint: Consider differences in the cells’ environments, structures or functions.) What are two ways that these cells must be similar?

During Reading:

  1. Describe one specific job that proteins do for us.
  2. Describe one challenge of trying to create proteins in a lab.
  3. What is the relationship of amino acids to proteins?
  4. What is the focus of the field known as synthetic biology?
  5. Explain how a faulty protein causes blindness in the disease known as retinitis pigmentosa. How did scientists use synthetic biology to help restore vision to rats afflicted with this disease?
  6. Describe one potential risk of traditional brain implants.
  7. How are microtubules similar to the tracks of toy trains? What are the nanoparticles used by Kerstin Göpfrich made of?
  8. What do channel proteins do in a cell? Explain how the structure of carbon nanotubes makes them suitable mimics for channel proteins.
  9. What triggered the “opening” of synthetic channel proteins that Frankie Rawson and his team developed?
  10. What type of cell did Nicholas Leeper target? In what way was the behavior of these targeted cells changed?

After Reading:

  1. To what extent do you believe synthetic biology will help people in the future? Come up with one potential application for synthetic biology beyond what is described in this story.
  2. Michael Levin said he thinks the technology developed via synthetic biology could one day fix all kinds of medical problems (except infectious diseases). Describe Levin’s “grand-scale” vision for such a future. Now pick one of the technologies or scientific findings mentioned in this story and explain how it might contribute to such a future.