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iGEM 2008 at MIT

I spent an eye-opening day at MIT on Saturday, attending the iGEM Jamboree, a competition for undergrads from schools around the world who are working in the emerging field of synthetic biology. I don’t pretend to be an expert AT ALL on this, but I am blown away by what these kids are doing — and by the awesome and far-reaching implications of this new science, which has existed, formally, for only about five years. I will definitely be learning — and writing — more about it in the future.

A view of the Stata Center, designed by Frank Gehry.

A view of the Stata Center at MIT, designed by Frank Gehry.

Essentially, what these college students are doing is hacking life, “writing” DNA rather than computer code. Starting with a kit of standard biological “parts,”  called BioBricks, students work to create synthetic (that is, not natural) biological systems capable of completing specific tasks.

The first iGEM competition was held in 2004; five teams competed. This year, there were 84 teams, whose projects proposed to solve problems in categories such as nutrition, energy, medicine, and environmental remediation.

The MIT team, for example, was working to develop a “Biogurt,” in which the yeast that causes milk to become yogurt would be genetically modified to also secrete an amino acid that prevents tooth-decay-causing bacteria from attaching to teeth. Since a new batch of yogurt is made using some of an old batch, such a mechanism could have enormous potential for sustainably, and inexpensively, improving health in underdeveloped rural communities around the world.

Members of the Davidson-Missouri Western team, bullish on their chances with the judges.

The Davidson-Missouri Western team (left) designed, modeled, and constructed a “bacterial computer,” dubbed E. nigma (bioengineering-crypto-geek joke), that uses a colony of bacteria, rather than a microprocessor, to compute cryptographic “hash functions” commonly used for authentication of digital “fingerprints” in computer-security applications.

Final competition results haven’t been posted online as I write, but the team from UC Berkeley (below) was among the finalists. They’ve designed what they call Clonebots, biological “devices” that automate a lot of the grunt work of bioengineering, splitting cells and sorting and analyzing the biological material released in that process — work that traditionally must be done in a hands-on, mechanical process. Judging by the serious interest shown by more knowledgeable visitors than me to their display in the hall of the Stata Center, they seem to be onto something.

The Berkeley team. Check out the hard hat (on him), cool blue hair (on her).

The Berkeley team. Check out the hard hat (on him), cool blue hair (on her).

The future is totally here. And when the future’s not manipulating the building blocks of life, fundamentally altering what exactly life IS, it’s checking in on Facebook. Which is somehow exactly as it should be. For all the talk about America falling behind the curve in math and sciences, seeing what’s going on at an event like this — like spending any time at all in Silicon Valley — makes me not worried at all.

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