iGEM, or How to Build a Biological Organism in a Single Summer

Illustration for article titled iGEM, or How to Build a Biological Organism in a Single Summer

The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition brings undergraduates from around the world to MIT's campus to share the results of a summer's worth of synthetic biology research. Each team tries to create the best synthetic organism. Here you can see the iGEM participants (photo courtesy of David Appleyard and iGEM). I'm one of the folks in black up in front. (No, the other one.) Find out what these students cooked up over the summer, and who won.Congratulations to Slovenia , who took the grand prize BioBrick trophy home with them with their project, which was designed to create a vaccine for H. pylori, infection with which is associated with ulcers and gastric cancer. H. pylori possesses "stealth flagella", which manage to avoid an important immune receptor. Slovenia attempted to combine bits of other bacterial proteins (that aren't capable of avoiding that receptor) with bits of H. pylori proteins in an attempt to hand-feed H. pylori antigen targets to the immune system, with promising results. Frieburg took second place by combining DNA origami (the animation is borrowed from their wiki) with a clever receptor scheme in order to attempt nanoscale control of cellular signaling.

Illustration for article titled iGEM, or How to Build a Biological Organism in a Single Summer

This DNA origami basically takes a long piece of DNA and, by adding many short carefully chosen DNA tethers designed to bind to the longer DNA in specific places, fold it into a particular shape. Third place went to Caltech's multifunctional probiotic bacteria by adding functions to a commercially available, non-pathogenic probiotic strain of E. coli - functions including pathogen defense, vitamin production, and a treatment for lactose intolerance. (Bioengineered bacteria - digesting lactose so you don't have to.) Probiotics were big at iGEM this year, with MIT taking a probiotic approach to dental care and finalist NYMU-Taipei's BactoKidney - a bacteria that attaches to the wall of your small intestine, then munches on waste products before abandoning ship before it overstays its welcome.

Illustration for article titled iGEM, or How to Build a Biological Organism in a Single Summer

The image is from NYMU-Taipei's wiki, where you can see its full-resolution glory. Trust me, dialysis isn't nearly so adorable. UC Berkeley didn't do so bad either - we had two teams, one devoted to a wet lab project to combine engineered bacteria with robots, making large-scale synthetic biology projects possible, and the other working on computational tools to keep better track and make better use of collections of genetic parts. Our wet team, CloneBots, made it to the finals, and our comp team, Clotho, won for best software tool. Click to view This year was my first jamboree, and I was gobsmacked at the collective hard work and ingenuity on display. Anyone who does research knows how difficult it is to accomplish a significant amount of work in a single semester, but these teams went at their projects with energy and intensity, and it shows. Congratulations, everyone! We hope to see you in 2009. If iGEM or our mad science contest sound like your idea of a good time, see if your university has an iGEM team. If not, it's time to start one. On a more somber note, this is going to be my last Ask a Biogeek - professional obligations abound. If I didn't have a chance to get to your question yet, apologies. A few of those obligations may be of interest to y'all, so keep an ear to the ground and you may be hearing from me again soon. Take care!


Corpore Metal

I've always loved the fields of artificial life and synthetic biology. One day we will be able to create living cells or even entire multicellular organisms from scratch atoms.

Take that vitalism! Take that artificial intelligence skeptics! Take that mystics! Life and mind are just processes with nothing unknowable in their emergence.