Every fall, a synthetic biology conference, International Genetic Engineered Machines (iGEM), is held in Boston, Massachusetts in the Hynes Convention Center. The iGEM conference initially started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003 and is centered on team-based competition using “bio-bricks,” or standard parts. Each year, nearly 300 teams from top universities around the globe bring their latest synthetic biology research to the conference to compete. This past year, I was fortunate enough to take part in Georgia Tech’s iGEM team and thus be able to share some of my experiences that I had learning about other university’s research.
At the heart of iGem is the “bio-brick”, a genetic sequence that conforms to a restriction-enzyme assembly standard. When a university engineers a useful genetic sequence that has a new function, they put it in a standard form and submit it to the iGEM registry of standard parts. Over the years, the iGEM registry has accumulated over 20,000 bio-bricks. Now, iGEM teams pull parts from the registry to advance and improve on their research, creating a highly interlocked community of synthetic biology research that spans the globe. At the competition itself, each team presents their structures to a panel of judges and an auditorium full of other iGEM participants and professors. The panel judges teams on the quality of their research, the professionalism in their presentation, and even the level of community outreach they did to incorporate their project to the real world and to raise awareness about the benefits of synthetic biology.
This year’s Georgia Tech iGEM Team worked on using a novel phage display system to select for and evolve a “clickase” protein with an innovative function: the ability to act as an enzyme in vivo for copper-catalyzed alkyne-azide cycloaddition (CuAAC). More specifically, for the CuAAC reaction to act as quickly as it does, a copper catalyst is required at concentrations toxic to cells, making it undesirable in vivo. As such, our team’s protein is intended to substitute for this catalyst and make the CuAAC reaction viable again, because it has a long list of potential benefits in drug-discovery and delivery, as well as in advanced molecular tagging.
Synethetic biology, however, has a range of purposes and potential results that extend beyond producing better enzyme replacements. One team’s presentation initially caught my eye: “The Pattern Formation Game” by UT-Tokyo. Their research involved biological patterns for which the concept of “Turing patterns” are largely responsible; a Turing pattern is a proposed mechanism for the process by which non-uniformity may arise naturally out of a uniform state. In particular, the state that the UT-Tokyo iGem team explored involved that of an activator and an inhibitor, each affecting the other in a manner that gives rise to an overall pattern. However, because living organisms’ development can be very complex, it is difficult to investigate Turing patterns in vivo. To address this, the team created synthetic systems involving E. coli cells, which represented the intercellular interactions between activator and inhibitor, to study the Turing Pattern and came up with very cool visualizations! I find the quantification of patterns in living systems very intriguing, so I was pleased to see a project with such originality in combining biology and computer science.
And, of course, I had to watch the presentation of the university who won the competition in 2014: UC Heidelberg. UC Heidelberg’s project focused on functional nucleic acids and their ability to act as biocatalysts for many reactions and bind specifically to any target. The team developed a program to redesign the Western blot and design any aptamer in under two hours on a typical laptop, which would in theory be 100 times cheaper than current costs. Another team, TU Darmstadt, presented on “Building with Light”, a project centered on improving the biocompatibility and effectiveness of 3D SLA printing – which involves a sheet of polymer that solidifies upon interaction with a light source – with a monomer toolbox.
As a whole, the iGEM competition does good for the realm of synthetic biology and for the advancement of undergraduate research. It provides a way for undergrads to control their own scientific questions and to learn to direct research in a professional and intelligent way. Recruitment will soon be underway for the 2016 Georgia Tech iGEM team, so keep an eye out for information on how to apply!