We assume that playing with building blocks is for children, but there are many who keep enjoying it as adults. They don’t build towers or houses anymore, but instead, they construct complex living organisms that are also made by standardised modular blocks: they are synthetic biologists. This young discipline is gaining adepts worldwide and one reason for this increasing popularity is a contest: the International Genetically Engineered Machine, or iGEM.
It all started as a synthetic biology course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003, in which students had to engineer biological devices to make a cell blink. The following summer, it turned into a summer competition with 5 teams and, since then, it has kept growing until becoming the world biggest biology engineering competition for students worldwide, with over 5000 participants and 300 teams. Since then, cells have not only blinked, they have become biosensors that change colour in response to different stimuli, miniature indigo-producing factories to dye denim or even living vectors for drug delivery. “iGEM has created a whole new community of synthetic biologists, it is great that so many students are interested in the field,” comments Oscar Kuipers, a R4B partner from the University of Groningen who has over a decade of iGEM experience and has witnessed the rapid evolution of this contest.
“iGEM has created a whole new community of synthetic biologists, it is great that so many students are interested in the field”
Kuipers and a small group of students started an iGEM team at Groningen eleven years ago, becoming the first team from the Netherlands to ever participate in this competition. “That was quite challenging because we didn’t know much about it, it was all new. We had to find everything from scratch and there were not so many teams by then, only around 40 or 50 worldwide, so it was not as big as now,” comments Kuipers.
The competition has grown in size and complexity since then, but the essence remains. Every year the students are challenged to solve a current problem with a new engineered organism using bio bricks, small pieces of DNA with specific functions that have been studied and standardised and represent the building blocks of synthetic biologists. All the teams start with a kit that contains some of the key pieces that one could need to engineer an organisms as if their “playing” with Lego pieces: “The nice idea of this system is that for E. coli for example there are lots of bio bricks, lots of regulators, fluorescent proteins and so on to choose from promotors, terminators, ribosome binding sites. Everything is bricked and you can use them and put them together the way you want. And, if you are missing something, you can make it yourself and add it to the collection,” explains the professor. That is an essential aspect of iGEM that aims at expanding the world of synbio and the catalogue of available tools for every researcher to explore the potential of this field.
With the one challenge ahead of them and just a few months of time, the teams have to gather and come up with a winning idea. First, with the support of advisors like Kuiper the students come together, brainstorm and discuss about their project: “The students generate the ideas, they can really decide, and they like this freedom very much. They define their own project,” comments Kuipers.
Once the project is clear, it is time to get to work! On the one hand there is a lot of mathematical modelling, experimental design, and hours of lab work and results analysis that the students have to perform.
But it is not only about science and lab work: to ensure the success of their projects, iGEM students also learn about organisation and team work. How to find funding and sponsors, how to manage a project, how to divide the workload and how to communicate with each other and about their project. “iGEM is a great instrument, a way of alternative teaching that stimulates the proactiveness and creativity of the students. They have to take the action, they have to find out a lot of things by themselves and they like very much that they are not being told what to do all the time,” says Kuipers.
“iGEM is a great instrument, a way of alternative teaching that stimulates the proactiveness and creativity of the students. They have to take the action, they have to find out a lot of things by themselves and they like very much that they are not being told what to do all the time”
After a summer of hard work, the teams gather in the fall for IGEM’s annual closing event, the Giant Jamboree, currently happening in Boston.
From an arsenic biosensor to screen drinking water using E. coli, to a smart bandage to prevent wound infections using Lactobacillus Lactis, team Groningen has always been very successful in the IGEM competition. With a proud smile and an IGEM diploma hanging on his office wall, Kuipers tells us how they even won the Grand Prize in 2012 with “The Food Warden”, an engineered sticker placed within meat packages that uses Bacillus subtilis as a colour indicator to detect meat rotting and avoid food waste.
In this year’s edition, team Groningen will be presenting its bioplastic producing yeast at the Giant Jamboree and, together with hundreds of teams, they will turn Boston into an international hub for synbio innovation. These talented and enthusiastic synthetic biologists in the making boost the field with their ingenious projects and demonstrate, year after year, how building with blocks can be brought to a whole new level. We wish the best of luck to all the teams, and let the iGEM games begin!