E. coli that can determine the purity of water, bacteria that change color depending on lighting to form a living photograph – these are not just new technologies being produced by scientists in a laboratory, they are projects made by undergraduate students for competition. The organisms above and more have all been created and voted on in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition held every year.
Started in 2003 at MIT as a course in teaching biology students how to genetically engineer a cell to blink, iGEM has evolved into an international competition, with 165 teams of undergraduate students from around the globe in 2011 alone. The competition is made possible by the ever-advancing field of synthetic biology, which involves altering the DNA of organisms to produce a new synthetic organism that can complete a specific task. The development of BioBricks has also helped to make this competition possible. BioBricks is an online database full of genes. A student simply has to go to the website and choose from a number of character traits – perhaps the fluorescent firefly gene, or the gene that gives a banana its smell – and input the series of A’s, C’s, T’s, and G’s into the code they are constructing. It’s not exactly that simple, however, but without BioBricks, the prospects of a team being able to complete the project in the allotted time would be slim to none.
Life can be rather unpredictable though, as many teams begin to realize. After working hard on their new strand of DNA, and after waiting for it to be synthesized by a third party, some find that it does not work the way they designed it to, and they often have to go back to the drawing board. Oftentimes, finishing a product comes down to the wire, but many groups do end up finishing with very interesting, useful, or goofy organisms.
The competition proves to be challenging to all involved, but it also serves as a learning experience. There are many misconceptions when it comes to synthetic biology, and one of the goals of iGEM is to spread the word about the potential good that this new field of science can accomplish. The competition also helps to educate future scientists on how to do this kind of work – it serves as a way for a college student to dip his toes into something he might not have considered before. For almost a decade, the competition has armed students with the knowledge to do things that have never been done before, and it will hopefully continue to do so for years to come.