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Visible Results: 2009 iGem Roundup

In its sixth year, iGem certainly looks like a viable colony, actively self-replicating. Once containable within the disorienting confines of the Stata Center, the event is now a sprawling, all-over-campus thing. With more than 100 teams and some 1,700 participants, this year’s competition took over lecture halls in five separate buildings clustered along “iGem Lane.”

Getting my bearings, I settled in for a one-of-a-kind annual synthetic biology immersion course, sitting in on packed sessions where international teams of undergrads presented their attempts — successful and, more often, not — to tweak DNA building blocks into new kinds of machines, aiming to create a living nanotech that may one day cure disease, clean the environment, generate heat and light, build biomaterials and “green” chemicals, transform the way we think about fiber optics and information processing, and perhaps even colonize other planets. In the process, ideally, the students will have taken from and contributed back to the rapidly growing, open-source Registry of Standard Biological Parts.

At the end of Day 1, head reeling and convinced by a constant stream of tweets from other attendees that I’d missed some great projects and presentations, I wanted to find out what things looked like from a judge’s perspective. It was Halloween night, and as the FBI — one of this year’s iGem sponsors — gave a talk on biosafety and Mac Cowell rallied a DIYbio meetup of a dozen or so Cambridge regulars and some visiting iGemmers (and showed off an FBI agent’s business card — “at least we can start putting together a list of who they are”), I scored some face time with Reshma Shetty and Barry Canton, two of the cofounders of Ginkgo Bioworks, arguably the most high-profile synbio startup to spring from the iGem stew. Canton observed that the student teams seemed more focused on specific practical applications than in earlier years, but he was  encouraged to see a number of teams thinking about “techniques for speeding up the construction process, foundational things that are harder to evaluate.”

Team Osaka salmonella mandala

Team Osaka salmonella mandala

Christina Agapakis, another iGem judge and a grad student in Pam Silver’s lab at Harvard, was energized by some of the more visual, “arty” team projects, like Team Osaka’s “ColorColi” bio-painting project, which used programmed salmonella cells to display various patterns and colors by means of quorum sensing.

The merging of biology and art was a definite theme in this year’s Jamboree, and Team Valencia was another “art project” favorite. Second runner-up for the grand prize and winner in the best new application area, the Valencians programmed a strain of yeast to respond to electrical signals, and assembled them into an LED-like “bio-screen” capable of displaying a pixelated animation. The display is sped up, I think to double-speed, in this video:

Team Art Science Bangalore generated buzz for their DIY gumption and unique aesthetic, bringing true “beginner’s mind” to the pursuit of synthetic biology. Enlisting help from a nearby technical institute, these art students set out to learn genetic engineering techniques and terminology with a poetic aim: getting E. coli to express the enzyme geosmin, which produces “the earthy smell when rain falls after a dry spell of weather.” Their final experimental results were inconclusive, but the team’s pluck, curiosity, and humor helped them bag the prize for best presentation. This video they created playfully documents their work and demonstrates some of the DIY equipment they utilized, including a cool Web-cam microscope and a homebrew elecrophoresis machine.

The Scatalog

The Scatalog

The grand prize-winning team, E. Chromi from Cambridge (England, not Mass.), also incorporated art in cunning ways. Certainly, attendance at their presentation was helped by the guerrilla marketing of Alexandra Daisy Ginsburg (here’s her piece on iGem from Wired UK) and James King (left), a pranksterish duo of artist-designers who collaborated with the team to help them think about the social, cultural, and ethical implications of their research and to envision some playful future applications of the team’s technology. Their “Scatalog,” a silver suitcase packing a fluorescent, um … load, graphically illustrated one way in which bio-sensitive color readouts could be used to diagnose bodily ills, and fluorescent poop turned out to be the talk of the weekend.

The Cambridge team itself presented a totally serious, and beautiful, project that offered up a set of compelling new components for future synbio makers. They not only designed a “tuning” component capable of adjusting the sensitivity of a biological sensor so that it can distinguish between different levels of a given chemical input, but also engineered a rainbow spectrum of bio-colors into E. coli, expanding the range of visible readouts well beyond the usual green and red fluorescent reporters. Put together into a complete system — which the team, having done plenty for the official 10-week iGem work period, did not attempt — these parts would allow for, say, the precise measurement of varying levels of an environmental (or bodily) toxin, and display of results in an array of gorgeous colors. Pretty, practical, and well-presented — not to mention well-funded; the team’s sponsor thank-you page was a blanket of corporate logos — the project seemed to be a popular Gemmy winner.

Day 2 of the Jamboree dawned a bit colder, but with another full schedule of presentations to take in, I pushed on. I caught an impressive and crowd-pleasing project by the UCSF team, which was actually made up of biotechnology students from San Francisco’s Abraham Lincoln High School, who got some nice results — captured on microscope video — in their efforts to engineer “cellular nanorobots,” adding steering, brake and accelerator, and payload-carrying capacity to neutrophil-like HL-60 cells. The team also submitted 200 new parts to the BioBricks registry. In this video, engineered cells move in one direction, up, rather than randomly.

Other presentations — in the medical and cellular computing tracks especially — were way over my head, although they fill me with hope that so many people care so passionately about the arcana of disease. As an amateur observer, not a scientist, I was also frustrated by something else: the fact that so few of the teams had gotten to the point of actually testing and proving the systems they’d set out to create. Was everyone just on a wild goose chase? Could something as infinitely complex as biology ever really be made programmable? And weren’t students — who’d worked so hard, and in many cases traveled considerable distance — discouraged by having to present to their peers the results of experiments that, to my untrained eye, were “failures”?

Not at all, said Ivan Bochkov, a sophomore on the gold-medal Harvard team whom I’d met over the summer and who had patiently walked me through some of the lab processes that went into constructing the team’s interspecies optical-communication system. “No, it’s not discouraging,” said Ivan. “It’s absolutely exciting. Sure, you like to see a polished project, but in 10 weeks — you don’t write an astrophysics paper in 10 weeks [Ivan, by the way, knows astrophysics; he helped map the largest-known black hole in the universe during a summer internship with a prominent black-hole researcher]. Even some of these that are small-scale projects, there’s still a lot of work that goes into it. We’re still learning how to optimize this synbio research. I feel it’s impressive that anything gets done over a summer.”

I also talked with Robbie Barbero, an MIT grad student, former MIT iGem team adviser, and a second-year judge, about the scientific view of “failure.” “If you can clearly eliminate something as a possibility, that’s a great result for the community,” he says. “Then people know they don’t need to try your approach to figure out what you were trying to do. Fortunately there are enough really good teams now that enter the competition that the winners are teams that achieved almost everything they set out to achieve. But the whole iGem community is centered around making usable parts that everyone else can use in the future. So if a team has a very ambitious goal of making some device that can have a huge impact in the world and they don’t achieve that, but they still put some physical pieces of DNA into the registry, and they describe them and characterize them in a way that makes them usable in the future, they get rewarded for that.”

Robbie and I also discussed the more noticeable corporate presence at this year’s iGem. In addition to numerous sponsors displayed on individual teams’ T-shirts, InVitrogen and GeneArt were competition sponsors, with tables set up to promote their products and services to a new generation of scientists, an indication of how quickly synthetic biology is moving from the merely speculative to the potentially lucrative. “Two years ago MIT struggled to get any sort of interest from corporate people to sponsor us,” Robbie told me. Aside from the stiff competition for funding dollars in the Boston area, he said, “iGem was smaller and companies didn’t see a need to be in synthetic biology as much as there is now. The people who make the decisions now are starting to look and say there’s growth in this area and we need to be in it. There’s no Genentech yet in synthetic biology, but presumably 30 years ago when Genentech was trying to get started, there were a lot of people who were like, ‘You guys are idiots, this is never going to work.’ And they started the industry.”

Team Valencia

Team Valencia

No doubt, the discipline of synthetic biology is still “emerging.” But it’s growing up fast, says Rob Carlson, an iGem judge, co-founder of Seattle-based outfit Biodesic, and the author of the soon-to-be published book Biology Is Technology. It took more than 100 years of research in basic electronics and then semiconductor technology to get from Edison to the Pentium chip, and “iGEM is attempting to squeeze all that effort into just a few years,” he writes on his blog. One evident advantage of this compressed evolution is the opportunity, at iGem, for young students to engage directly with the Edisons of synthetic biology, sharing big ideas, tricks of the trade, and free sandwiches with the likes of Tom Knight, Randy Rettberg, Drew Endy, Pam Silver, and George Church (to name a few). How motivating must that be? I’ve never been a scientist — or even a good science student — but in this kind of supercharged environment it’s hard not to want to learn, to try to mind-surf the bow wave of the biological future. It’s here now, are you?

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