The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition
by Gregor Wolbring
November 15, 2007
I mentioned iGEM briefly in my Synthetic Biology 3.0 column. It deserves more coverage, which I would like to provide here.
iGEM is a competition which tries to address the question: “Can simple biological systems be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells? Or is biology simply too complicated to be engineered in this way?”
Its broader goals include:
- enabling the systematic engineering of biology;
- promoting the open and transparent development of tools for engineering biology; and
- helping to construct a society that can productively apply biological technology
iGEM tries to answer this question and achieve these goals by hosting a yearly competition where student teams design and assemble engineered machines using advanced genetic components and technologies. The competition has taken place three times so far, and it is growing. In 2006, 36 teams from around the world participated. In 2007 the number increased to 56.
The 2007 IGEM competition concluded in November, and prizes were awarded for the following categories:
- foundational research: basic science and engineering research;
- information processing: genetically encoded control, logic, and memory;
- energy: biological fuels, feedstocks, or other energy projects;
- environment: sensing or remediation of environmental state;
- health and medicine: applied projects with the goal of directly improving the human condition;
- best BioBricks part;
- best foundational technology enabling synthetic biology; and
- best model or simulation.
The winners were:
- foundational research: Paris;
- information processing: Peking;
- energy: Alberta, Canada;
- environment: Glasgow;
- health and medicine: Slovenia;
- best BioBricks part: Cambridge and Melbourne;
- best foundational technology: USTC; and
- best model or simaultion: Bangalore.
The best poster award was given to Berkeley and Calgary, and the best presentation award to ETH-Zurich. The Grand Prize was won by Peking.
The project of Paris university was about the engineering of the first synthetic multicellular bacterium. Glasgow designed a self-powering electrochemical biosensor, called ElectrEcoBlu. Alberta genetically engineered Escherichia coli bacteria to convert biomass into butanol for use as an energy source.
The team from Slovenia generated a synthetic system of antiviral defense against the HIV-1 infection that is not sensitive to viral mutations. Melbourne used light to form a solid fluorescent mass of E. coli where two light beams intersect in a suspension of cells. They called their building system "coliforming." Cambridge among others constructed a "chassis" out of a Gram-positive bacterium, into which genetic engineers can add BioBrick parts and control circuits.
University of Science and Technology China USTC “provided a new method for building up a fully extensible bio-logic circuit in bacteria.” Bangalore did a proof-of-principle project. Calgary engineered E. coli so they release a protein called agarase when one shines a light on them. Agarase dissolves the agar medium in which the bacteria rest. The system can be used to dissolve images into agar plates and create very high resolution pictures.
Berkeley developed a cost-effective red blood cell substitute constructed from engineered E. coli bacteria. Their system is designed to safely transport oxygen in the bloodstream without inducing sepsis, and to be stored for prolonged periods in a freeze-dried state. ETH-Zurich designed E. coli that can be trained to memorize and recognize their environment in the future.
The descriptions of these projects referenced above are in the language of their respective webpage.
I have paraphrased Peking's description of its project as follows:
Our projects deal with the ability for bacterial cells to differentiate out of homogeneous conditions into populations with the division of labor. The objective is to create devices conferring host cells with the ability to form cooperating groups spontaneously, and to take consecutive steps sequentially even when the genetic background and environmental inputs are identical.
Two devices are required, that are respectively responsible for temporal and spatial differentiation. These will lead to bioengineering where complex programs consisting of sequential steps (structure oriented programs) and cooperating agencies (forked instances of a single class, object and event oriented) can be embedded in a single genome.
Although this "differentiation" process resembles the developmental stages of a multicellular organism, we use a bioengineering analogy: the assembly line. Some years from now, perhaps, this will not be just an analogy.
The Choice is Yours
Synthetic biology (the bottom-up design and creation of living matter) and molecular manufacturing (the bottom-up design and creation of non-living matter) will change our basic concepts of how society functions, if indeed they are able to deliver what their proponents are promising. iGEM is yet another indication that synthetic biology is both thriving and global, and that it deserves much more publicity than it has actually received to date.
I will deal with molecular manufacturing in a future column.
Gregor Wolbring is a biochemist, bioethicist, disability/vari-ability/ability studies scholar, and health policy and science and technology governance researcher at the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University; Part Time Professor at Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, Canada; Member CAC/ISO - Canadian Advisory Committees for the International Organization for Standardization section TC229 Nanotechnologies; Member of the editorial team for the Nanotechnology for Development portal of the Development Gateway Foundation; Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People's International; and former Member of the Executive of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (2003-2007 maximum terms served). He publishes the Bioethics, Culture and Disability website, moderates a weblog for the International Network for Social Research on Disability, and authors a weblog on NBICS and its social implications.