Monday, November 26, 2007

Join the Biological Engineering Revolution

Many people familiar with the sorts of programs we promote at WISE have asked me (a Physicist) "Hey, all that robotics and physics stuff is pretty cool, but what can you help us biologists with?"

Well boy have I got a good one for you. A couple of weeks ago, Chris Harrow and I visited Dr. Tom Knight at MIT's CSAIL laboratory to learn about iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. Tom, incidentally, in addition to being the "Patron Saint of Synthetic Biology," is one of the charter members of the WISE advisory board, and my old grad school adviser! Here are links to a Boston Globe article and a Technology Review Article on the 2007 iGEM meeting.


iGEM is basically the genetic engineering equivalent to the FIRST robotics competition, wherein student teams compete to take fundamental DNA building blocks and use them to design and build their own artificial organisms that solve interesting problems. See the 2007 iGEM Wiki here, and a short intro to the iGEM program here.

The real beauty of the challenge is that a mere few hundred dollars worth of basic bio tools like test tubes, pipettes, a refrigerator and an oven (things that most schools already have lying around) are all you need. Well, that and some creativity and some basic lab skills (i.e. like being able to pipette from one tube to another without poking yourself in the eye) will let you make some truly novel living organisms.

Here are a couple of examples from past year's competitions, from ultra-sensitive arsenic detectors that are basically free (okay you need sugar to feed the bacteria) to living computer building blocks. Projects are only limited by your creativity and willingness to pipette and bake.

UCSF and Lincoln High School's Synthetic Assembly Scaffolds

Berkeley's Bacto-blood, a cost-effective red blood cell substitute constructed from engineered E. coli bacteria designed to safely transport oxygen in the bloodstream without inducing sepsis, and to be stored for prolonged periods in a freeze-dried state.

Alberta's Butanol bio-fuel producing bacteria,

Duke's Macroscopic Bacterial Systems projects,


Glasgow's Environmental Bio-sensor project,

Melbourne's buoyant light-programmed bio-brick.

There are dozens of other projects, with all of their notes and results published on the wiki, so you can get an idea of what is involved. Despite the fact that most of the teams were from Universities, their were many high school participants, and Dr. Knight was particularly interested in getting more high schools involved.

Sign up here at the iGEM 2008 page to receive news or express interest in fielding a team! Or email me and I can hook you up with Tom.