A recent survey of 3,000 people worldwide found what many have known all along–that Legos are the best toy ever made. For synthetic biologists, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise–Legos are at the heart of the concepts underlying the basics of synthetic biology.
Legos are a favorite analogy for BioBricks, the DNA parts that are made to easily “snap” together using a shared genetic engineering strategy. The iGEM competition is structured around BioBricks, with undergraduate teams combining old and creating new BioBricks for the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, competing for the coveted Lego-shaped trophy, and sometimes even using real Legos in their projects, building robots used for biological experiments.
Legos are wonderful toys because snapping just a few little pieces together can, with a little imagination, turn simple bricks into almost anything. It’s a powerful analogy for synthetic biology, where not only do Legos provide us with the idea that common biological parts can be easily snapped together to create something completely new and amazing, the analogy gives us a license to play with biology, to try different combinations and see what happens. The same people who loved playing with Legos as kids are the people building the Registry, making new biological systems, trying to see what we can make. Of course cells aren’t the blank slate that our bedroom carpets were for building Lego structures, by playing with biology we can learn a lot about how cells work and create new and potentially useful things.