A team of eight undergraduates from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia--cheering and leaping onto MIT's Kresge Auditorium stage in green team T-shirts--won the grand prize Sunday at the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition at MIT.
The group--which received an engraved award in the shape of a large aluminum Lego piece--explored a way to use engineered cells to intercept the body's excessive response to infection, which can lead to a fatal condition called sepsis.
The goal of the 380 students on 35 university teams from around the world was to build biological systems the way a contractor would build a house--with a toolkit of standard parts.
iGEM participants spent the summer immersed in the growing field of synthetic biology, creating simple systems from interchangeable parts that operate in living cells. Biology, once thought too complicated to be engineered like a clock, computer or microwave oven, has proven to be open to manipulation at the genetic level. The new creations are engineered from snippets of DNA, the molecules that run living cells.
Cells may one day be programmed to manufacture and deliver drugs or key molecules within the body, churn out fuel, detect pollutants and carry out a slew of as-yet-unimagined functions. The MIT team, dubbed "eau d'ecoli," genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to smell like mint while they were growing and to smell like banana when they were done. The technique could potentially be used to improve the scent of other foul-smelling substances.
"It's kind of a cool thing to tell your bacteria how to smell," said team member Veena Venkatachalam, an MIT sophomore majoring in chemistry and physics.
The Slovenian team was one of the few to work with mammalian cells. Ljubljana microbiology student Monika Ciglic said that the team chose the more challenging and complicated mammalian cells over bacteria or viruses because of the potential rewards of coming up with a system that could work in the human body. Sepsis has been cited as the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. But while the other teams had an available toolkit of 500 "BioBricks"--snippets of DNA that have been proven to accomplish certain tasks--the Slovenian team had to build all its BioBricks from scratch.
Information about BioBricks, and a toolkit to make and manipulate them, was provided by the Registry of Standard Biological Parts created by MIT.
The first runner-up was a team from the Imperial College in London for its creation of an oscillator that was stable, had a high signal-to-noise ratio and could be easily integrated into other systems. Such a device has potential biomedical applications.
The second runner-up was the Princeton team for its work on programming mouse embryonic stem cells to differentiate on command. The technique could one day be used to create organs and tissues from stem cells, which have the ability to turn into any part of the body. Other projects with potential applications included the University of Edinburgh's device to detect arsenic in well water, a problem that affects 100 million people around the world, especially in poorer nations.
The director of iGEM, Randy Rettberg, principal research engineer in biological engineering, said he is convinced synthetic biology will spawn a worldwide industry. The possibilities for start-ups include companies that make and catalog individual parts, as well as companies that exploit the technology to solve myriad problems.
Drew Endy, assistant professor of biological engineering, said that it is "completely remarkable that 40 months ago, none of this was happening anywhere." A small pilot program held during Independent Activities Period has grown into an international competition, and Endy said that as DNA synthesis becomes more common, the field will expand even more rapidly.
As with any technology, there is the danger of misuse. Perceptions of synthetic biology range from excitement to fear and mistrust. Endy said that the work is so new, it's bound to scare some people. "A lot of people who were scaring folks in 1975 now have Nobel prizes," he said.
iGEM is an initiative of the MIT iCampus program, which is funded by Microsoft Corp. Competition winners were selected by a panel of judges from industry and academia.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 15, 2006 (download PDF).