In the front line of the new biosciences buzz is the international Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM). Since 2004, the prominent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US organizes the iGEM competition for multidisciplinary teams of students. What started as a small extracurricular MIT course, has now grown into an international competition with more than 100 teams from all over the world. During the summer holiday, the teams build a "new genetic machine" in their home university, both with computer simulations and in the real lab. In November, all teams present their project at the 4-day jamboree at the MIT in Boston.
The international Genetically Engineered Machine or iGEM competition is a synthetic biology competition for multidisciplinary teams of undergraduate students. It was first organized in 2004 by Drew Endy, Randy Rettberg and Tom Knight of MIT with two goals in mind: to yield new ideas in synthetic biology and to form the future researchers in this new scientific community. This year the competition already counts 112 teams from all different continents.
The core of the iGEM competition is to design and build a “new genetic machine” with BioBricks. BioBricks are standardized, off the shelf biological parts that are used by genetic network designers. All BioBricks that were made during previous iGEM competitions are registered and documented in the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Each iGEM competition thus starts from the efforts of the previous years.
The main iGEM activity happens during the summer holidays, when all teams build their "new genetic machine" in their home university. These new biological systems are first carefully designed with computer simulations. Then they are built in the real lab by using existing BioBricks and creating new ones. During the 4-day jamboree at the MIT in Boston from October 30th to November 2nd, all teams present and defend their project for a variety of awards.
During the competition, every team documents their project in a wiki, as another goal of iGEM is to promote the sharing of information and know-how in an "open source biology". Likewise, the newly created BioBricks are documented and sent to the Registry of Standard Biological Parts a few weeks before the jamboree.
‘Essencia coli’ is a vanillin producing bacterium equipped with a control system that keeps the concentration of vanillin at a constant level. The showpiece of the project is the feedback mechanism. Vanillin synthesis is initiated by irradiation with blue light. The preferred concentration can be modulated using the intensity of that light. At the same time the bacterium measures the amount of vanillin outside the cell and controls its production to maintain the set point. The designed system is universal in nature and has therefore potential benefits in different areas. The concept can easily be applied to other flavours and odours. In fact, any application that requires a constant concentration of a molecular substance is possible.
This team’s project is Dr. Coli, an E. coli bacterium that produces a drug when and where it is needed in the human body. It does this in an intelligent way, such that the drug production meets the individual patient’s needs. And when the patient is cured, Dr. Coli eliminates itself from the body. To achieve this, a molecular timer registers the time since the last disease signal sensed. Then after a certain time, Dr. Coli self-destructs. However, when the disease flares up again – above a certain noise level - the timer is reset and new drug is produced. Finally, the timer will not start counting during the production of Dr. Coli, thanks to its disease-memory.
For more information, visit the iGEM website.