After making a thought-provoking presentation on bioengineering a "bacterial assembly line," a jubilant team from Peking University won the grand prize "BioBrick" award in the fourth annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGem) competition held Nov. 3-4 at MIT.
The Chinese team was among 54 from around the world who came to the 2007 iGem Jamboree to present innovative research in synthetic biology with projects that ranged from "Bactoblood" (a bioengineered alternative to human blood) to a "vitrotrap" that defended cells against HIV infection to an "Artificial Bio-Logic Circuit."
The event focused more on cooperation than competition. The 550 participants from countries such as France, Mexico, Slovenia, Canada and Italy spent the weekend sharing experiences, exchanging e-mails and honing their presentations.
IGem "is one of the best scientific meetings I've ever been to and one of the best scientific communities," said Drew Endy, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Engineering, and one of the iGem founders and organizer.
The idea for iGem was sparked from a 2003 IAP class in answer to a key question: "Can simple biological systems be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells?"
To show the answer is "yes," iGem participants are given a toolkit and "BioBricks," or bits of DNA from the MIT-based Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Each year, more BioBricks become available as the iGem teams add their creations to the stockpile.
"Everyone stands on the shoulders of everyone else," said Randy Rettberg, principal research engineer in the Department of Biological Engineering and iGem director. "Every team holds up the team that follows them."
Interest in the iGem competition has grown so keen that some schools, such as
Virginia Tech, have launched credit classes for undergraduates interested in participating, Rettberg said. Teams also included a sprinkling of high school and graduate students.
"This is the biggest design competition for biology," Rettberg said, adding that innovations in the emerging field of synthetic biology innovation have been driven by "undergraduates who don't know what is impossible."
Some projects focused directly on real-world applications of synthetic biology: the Italian team, for example, brainstormed a yeast sensor to determine real extra virgin olive oil. A team from the University of California Berkeley attempted to create a cost-effective red blood cell substitute constructed from engineered E. coli bacteria--a blood alternative that could be stored in a freeze-dry state. The team even brought in a crimson bag of "Bactoblood." If perfected, Bactoblood would "benefit a lot of people, especially in the Third World," said Nhu Nguyen, 17, a high school student and member of the UC Berkeley team.
Others wanted to pave the way for other research. Michael Chen of the University of California San Francisco team explained how their project, entitled "Location, Location, Location, " created protein scaffolds and an intracellular membrane-bound chassis for applications in eukaryotic cells.
"We're hoping we'll see a lot of people building off of (our design)," said team member Eric Meltzer.
A team from Paris discussed their work in progress on a new synthetic multicellular bacterium or SMB, a tool for engineering complex biological systems. A team from the University of Glasgow outlined a design for a powering electrochemical biosensor, called an "ElectrEcoBlu." The Scottish team also won kudos for their matching team shirts.
While the science was serious, many presenters added a light touch in their slides with cartoons of Homer Simpson, references to "Diet Coli" and nametags like "Hello My Name Is Late Endosome." One team even applied iGem temporary tattoos to their arms, face and neck. Nearly all the participants joined a dance on stage in Kresge Auditorium during the hour-long wait for judges to pick the overall winner.
The grand prize-winning team from Peking impressed judges with their construction of a bacterial assembly line with spatial and temporal differentiation. Ultraviolet radiation was used as a turn on/turn off switch and cells were designed to signal each other in proscribed ways. Team members said the process could have medical and engineering applications.