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Teams lay BioBrick foundation for genetic engineering

Thirteen international teams unveiled their biological designs at MIT last weekend at the 2005 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.

The teams, composed of students and instructors from North America and Europe, worked all summer to design and build engineered biological systems using standard interchangeable biological parts called BioBricks. BioBricks, originated at MIT, are made of biological materials that work as molecules inside living organisms.

While no one team walked away from the competition as the declared winner, all of the teams made progress in laying the foundation for the future of synthetic biology.

The new field of synthetic biology involves taking apart the stuff of life and refining it so it can be reused easily in potentially useful ways. Drew Endy, assistant professor of biological engineering, said that the successful development of foundational technologies such as BioBricks will make it much easier to engineer biological systems.

MIT senior research scientist Tom Knight, originator of the BioBricks system, likened BioBricks to standardized screw threads -- a fundamental advance, now taken for granted, in mechanical systems engineering.

"The goal of iGEM is to work with students to learn how to develop biology as a technology that can be used to engineer living systems that do useful things like process information and chemicals, construct materials and produce energy," said MIT principal research engineer Randy Rettberg, director of the MIT Registry of Standard Biological Parts and lead organizer of the 2005 iGEM competition.

Each team was recognized for its individual successes. For example, Davidson College was honored for its team name, "SynthAces," and Caltech was given "best use of transmogrified smiley faces." MIT was noted for having the "most modest goal" and "least transportable visual aid."

The awards panel noted that Berkeley's cell-cell signaling project, through which DNA is used to send information between cells, could one day lead to a programmable bacterial "Internet."

"All the teams worked hard and made a lot of progress," Rettberg said. "It's still early in the process of developing the field and we're quite happy with their success so far."

The iGEM participants were MIT, Berkeley, Caltech, University of Cambridge (U.K.), Davidson, ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), Harvard, University of Oklahoma, Penn State, Princeton, University of Toronto, University of California at San Francisco and University of Texas at Austin.

For more information on the competition and individual awards, visit the Jamboree web site.

The event was sponsored by Microsoft/MIT iCampus.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 9, 2005 (download PDF).

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