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Bio & Life Sciences

Synthetic Biology’s Future Assembled in Boston Last Weekend

iGEM 2014 participants. (Photo; 2014.igem.org)

iGEM 2014 participants. (Photo; 2014.igem.org)

“All these people are from the future,” said Drew Endy, nodding at the 2,200 mostly denim-and-hoodie-clad bodies crowded into a massive auditorium at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston on Monday morning, November 3. “And no one outside this room understands what they’re doing.”

The reason why was immediately apparent: Three female students from the UK’s Imperial College were on stage explaining how they’d created “customizable ultra-filtration membranes from bacterial cellulose.” And among thousands of rapt listeners were people wearing clothing printed with slogans like, “I made a cooperative molecular biosensor out of DNA and all I got was this blue hoodie.”

The assembly marked the final segment of the 2014 International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition, and the culmination of a weekend of intense bonding, as well as dancing and drinking, among the world’s most brilliant young bioengineers.

By Endy’s estimation, the group of undergrad and graduate students hailing from 245 universities and 32 countries—about one-third from each Asia, Europe, and North America, and 13 teams from Latin America—comprise 80 percent of the next generation of the synthetic biology industry. Just being in the room was a thrill, even if you couldn’t comprehend the science.

Endy, a 44-year-old Stanford bioengineering professor who studied with synthetic biology godfather Tom Knight at MIT, established iGEM in 2004. Seeing the current scale and sophistication of an event that started as a summer design competition among 5 student teams, he said, had moved him to tears.

iGEM challenges multidisciplinary student teams to solve real-world problems with entirely new biological systems that they design and build from interchangeable sequences of DNA. The sequences, available from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, fit together like Lego pieces to create synthetic circuits that can be incorporated into living cells. (Endy and U.C. Berkeley bioengineering professor Adam Arkin established the parts standards in 1999, and Knight introduced the interchangeable building blocks, called BioBricks, in 2003.)

iGEM President Randy Rettberg said the students develop their projects and work independently over the summer to compete in 15 tracks—including environment, energy, food and nutrition, manufacturing, health and medicine, art and design, and microfluidics.

Participation is not cheap. Teams pay $3,500 to the iGEM Foundation to register, and another $750 for each attendee at the Giant Jamboree. Students secure their own research and travel funding—upwards of $50,000 per group, which amounts to well over $10 million for the entire event. Many are sponsored by corporations, and Rettberg noted that all UK-based iGEM participants get summer stipends from the Wellcome Trust. “Europe has taken this seriously,” he said. The U.S.? Not so much.

The investment is small compared to the long-term value of the research. “Some of these projects turn into companies, or inspire companies, or inspire research at places like MIT,” said Rettberg. “Synthetic biology started here, and the vast bulk of the people who are doing synthetic biology today were iGEM participants.”

The iGEM grand prizes this year went to graduate students at the University of California, Davis, who invented OliView, an “enzyme-based electrochemical biosensor for olive oil quality control” and an undergraduate team from Heidelberg University that made heat-stable DNA-methyltransferase by synthesizing circular proteins using homegrown open-source software running on a globally distributed network of 1,00 home computers named iGEM@home. The ultimate application: an improvement on PCR (polymerase chain reaction), a 30-year-old DNA-amplification technology that is now integral to DNA research and diagnostics.

Rettberg compared these sorts of advancements in synthetic biology to the computing revolution of the last century: “Computers and networks were about information and this is about matter. This is as important and it’s going to be that big a deal.”

Despite the dot-com-boom-era level of energy in the room, he acknowledged that it’s still early days. “This is going to evolve and develop at a pace like the early networks,” Rettberg said. “The Internet started with DARPAnet in 1970 and it was 25 years before we had the World Wide Web. We’re 12 or 15 years into this, so it’s going to be a while before you have your 3D-printed genome things, but it will happen. Synthetic biology is what we’re going to do in the world over the next 50-60 years.”

Tech pioneer Stewart Brand, who was there at the start of the IT revolution, was also in the Hynes auditorium last weekend to witness the beginning of the synthetic biology revolution. He, too, confessed to getting teary during the iGEM finals. “It’s moving at several levels,” he said. “It’s moving at the level of the solutions they’re going after and it’s moving at the level of the youth and the application of these kids. These are undergraduates doing projects that will change the world.”

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