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All Eyes on iGem

You can expect a veritable who’s who of the synthetic biology community — and a lot of geeky T-shirts — at this weekend’s iGem Jamboree, held on the MIT campus in Cambridge. The annual competition — conceived as a showcase for teams of undergraduate students to demonstrate their skill and creativity in developing genetically engineered “machines” — was first held in 2004, when five schools competed. This year’s schedule shows 102 teams from around the world slated to make presentations on the projects they have developed. In addition to the being judged on the merits of their research and the quality of their posters and presentations, teams are evaluated on their contribution of “parts,” or BioBricks, to the MIT-maintained Registry of Standard Biological Parts. The aim: to compile a vast library of components — in this case, sections of DNA cloned into a plasmid — with known functions, which can be mixed and matched to  construct ever-more-complex synthetic biology devices and systems. The registry currently contains some 3200 genetic parts, but based on previous iGems, it’s likely that at least another 1,000 or so parts will be added this year. The analogy often used is to electrical engineering, where components such as switches, sensors, resistors, and inductors can be assembled into a unit that performs a particular function or functions. Another common comparison is to Lego building blocks — the grand prize at iGem is in fact a large Lego-shaped BioBrick engraved with winners from previous years.

Categories for project judging this year are: Environment, Food/Energy, Health/Medicine, Information Processing, Manufacturing, Software, Foundational, and New Application. Looking through the team wikis, I see lots of interesting projects, but I’m particularly excited to see what judges think of the Harvard team’s work on optical communication between different species — yeast and bacteria. From the team’s wiki:

“While optical communication between multicellular organisms is exceedingly common, it is virtually unknown between unicellular organisms. In light of this deficiency, our team decided to create an optical communication system between bacteria and yeast. Not only are these both unicellular organisms, they are from entirely different branches of the tree of life: one is a prokaryote, one a eukaryote. One is a bacterium, the other a fungus. Using the principles of synthetic biology, we were able to design a system allowing these wildly disparate organisms to communicate via bioluminescent signals.”

So what? I’m eager to talk with the team about potential applications of this specific system, but George Church, one of the Harvard team’s advisers, earlier this summer explained why he has long been interested in optical communication, generally. Light, he says, offers “a highly parallel” method for “programming” cells. “It’s something that’s sort of native to both biological and electronic systems — they both ‘get it’ right now,” he says. Ultimately, optical sensing could offer “a very compelling way of getting information from a computer into a cellular system.” It might also pave the way for non-invasive monitoring of cell activity and even the creation of optical networks of cells. As Church explains: “In the same sense that you have radio-frequency cellular networks — a bunch of cellphones in principle could sense where each other is, triangulate positions without any fixed-position cellular nodes — the same thing could be done optically without wires or radio frequency in a biological system. Wires and radio frequencies are either undemonstrated or very hard in biological systems, while optical is more natural.”

While Church readily admits that he’s “riffing” far beyond where iGem is, that’s part of the spirit of the competition — throwing a lot of interesting ideas out there, small proofs of concept that set the imagination to working and inspire the big ideas of the future.

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