Science Speaks - Blog by ISAAA

Cartoons Crack the Code: Exploring Gene Editing with Fun

By Kristine Grace N. Tome
April 24, 2024

“The medium is the message.”

Canadian educator and theorist Marshall McLuhan coined that phrase to highlight the value of forms and methods in delivering messages. Genetic engineering, gene editing, and recombinant DNA technology are just a few examples of complex concepts to explain when discussing biotechnology. However, creative tools are available to help educators and science communicators explain these terms.

One of the most effective ways to induce learning is visual media. Its aesthetic appeal opens the doors of people's minds to entertain foreign or vague concepts that are usually found in textbooks or scientific journals. Among the contemporary forms of visual media, cartoons and comics are deemed as effective ways to communicate to the public. Thus, many experts have adapted cartoons in their teaching as an innovative way of instruction and communicating science to make the general public appreciate science.

Among the most popular cartoon publications on science is Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guide book series covering Genetics, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and other big subjects. Gonick has been a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and was a staff cartoonist for Muse magazine from 1998 to 2015. He hopes that the “crazy” medium of cartoons will somehow improve this crazy world. One of his books, The Cartoon Guide to Genetics, aims to provide visual learning of molecular biology, wherein the DNA, RNA, transcription, translation, protein synthesis, and gene regulation are illustrated for aid appreciation and understanding.

BiotechToons and BioteKomiks

ISAAA, SEARCA BIC, and PICCA Inc. teamed up in 2011 to host BiotechToons, a cartoon contest exploring the benefits of crop biotechnology. Open to both professional and amateur artists, the competition encouraged science-based entries in the form of single-frame editorial cartoons. To equip participants, ISAAA offered briefings and online resources on the technology. A total of 76 submissions were judged by a diverse panel on theme adherence, originality, and visual impact. Winners from each level received prizes, with special recognition for outstanding entries. The winning cartoons were displayed at the 7th National Biotechnology Week Celebration in Metro Manila.

Following the popularity of BiotechToons, ISAAA and the Philippine Agriculture and Fisheries Biotechnology Program of the Department of Agriculture (DA Biotech) joined forces to launch the BioteKomiks contest in October 2023. This contest invited Filipino comic artists to showcase their creative perspectives on the positive impact of biotechnology (Pinoy Biotek) in Philippine agriculture and fisheries. Over 30 participants competed, with their entries judged by a panel of experts, including a renowned author, a veteran cartoonist, and a university professor. The top entries from both professional and amateur categories were then exhibited and awarded in December 2023.

Biotech sQuizBox: Making Science Fun for Everyone

Following the success of BiotechToons, the ISAAA Global Knowledge Center on Biotechnology created another innovative resource called Biotech sQuizBox. This accordion-style, cartoon-filled publication aims to introduce biotechnology to secondary students in an engaging way.

Biotech sQuizBox ensured scientific accuracy even with its fun format. The creative team prioritized technical accuracy over aesthetics. While the artist brought their creative touch, details like contained trials and cotton harvesting were revised for precise representation. Reference images were provided for guidance. The team also solicited feedback from students and teachers to improve the material. Draft copies were pre-tested with high schoolers, and their comments on illustrations, messages, and games were incorporated into the final version. 

Though Biotech sQuizBox was designed for secondary students, it also appealed to a wider audience, including professionals with no biotech background. Thus, it was distributed to research organizations, companies, government offices, and even featured in workshops and conferences. Additionally, a private company purchased copies for their youth outreach programs.

Another version of Biotech sQuizBox was also developed (Biotech sQuizBox: Not Just for Kids) to cater to other stakeholders. These publications were also translated into Filipino, Korean, and Urdu.

Biotech sQuizBox: All About Gene Editing

With the growing interest in gene editing, ISAAA developed another edition of Biotech sQuizBox, with a spotlight on plant breeding innovations. Biotech sQuizBox: All About Gene Editing is packed with answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) on gene editing as it tackles everything from the basics (What is gene editing?) to more complex topics (How does it differ from genetic engineering?). However, this accordion-type publication goes beyond the typical textbook. Aside from the FAQs, it provides an interactive experience with various activities designed for secondary school students and anyone curious about this exciting technology. 

Biotech sQuizBox: All About Gene Editing is filled with:

  • Engaging activities. Test your knowledge with a guessing game, put your word skills to the edit test, or even bake banana bread using gene-edited bananas.
  • Entertainment-education. Learn while having fun! Interactive activities make gene editing accessible and spark interest among potential stakeholders.
  • Explanations in illustrations. Still have questions? The FAQs provide straightforward answers to clear up any confusion, complemented with easy-to-grasp illustrations. 

This interactive guide, illustrated by freelance illustrator Steph Bravo-Semilla, makes gene editing fun and accessible. Get your free copy of Biotech sQuizBox: All About Gene Editing from the ISAAA website. 

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