iGEM 2013: Synthetic biology and the race to build prize-winning lifeforms

Posted on October 23, 2013


Synthetic biology is among the most exciting emerging fields in international science. Ever since J Craig Venter’s team became the first to create synthetic life – a bacterium containing its own web address, three quotations and the names of its 46 contributing scientists – the race has been on to turn pieces of DNA into novel life forms.

Craig Venter

Craig Venter

It’s not just play, it’s big business. Using ‘biobricks’, characterised DNA sequences with specific functions, researchers can assemble biology in the same way an engineer might put together pistons and gears. This systematic approach is what led to bacteria that produce biodiesel and will lead to what Venter recently described as a machine that people can use at home to ‘print’ out medicines, or even alien lifeforms (he calls it the Digital Biological Converter).

Industrial revolution 3.0
Healthcare, agriculture, manufacturing, energy and water treatment are just some of the fields that stand to be revolutionised by synthetic biology. But to do it teams will need researchers from many different disciplines: biologists, computing scientists, mathematicians, pharmacists and systems engineers. So competitions such as MIT’s iGEM are invaluable in creating the right team culture.

iGEM 2013
The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation was set up in January 2003 as a month-long course at MIT. Students used that month to design cells that could blink and the course then progressed to a summer competition of five teams in 2004. By summer 2013 that number had swelled to 203 and the competition to international jamborees with medal winners who progress to the world finals.

iGEM logo

In the UK alone there are 12 teams, among them a team from the University of Newcastle. The video (top) shows what undergraduate team members have been trying to achieve and what they get out of the competition. Apart from a smart CV entry, it gives them the opportunity to extend their lab skills, learn about web development, brush up presentation skills and learn what it is really like working in a dedicated team with tight deadlines.

Standard innovation
All teams start by selecting from a registry of standard biological parts and add these to new parts that they design to create their own biological systems that operate inside living cells. In Newcastle’s case it was decided that they would work using L-forms (strains of bacteria without cell walls) to see if they could improve the way that plants absorb nutrients, which may have implications for the way that crops are grown in future.

DNA double helix

DNA double helix

Previous team projects have included an arsenic biodetector that developing countries can use to identify safe water supplies; Bactoblood, a red blood cell substitute engineered from E.coli bacteria, and; E.Chromi, which revolutionised the path of biosensor design by engineering E.coli to change colour in response to different concentrations of a substance.

Gold medal
Newcastle’s iGEM students were among the lucky gold medal winners at the European regional heats in Lyon, France and are one of 11 teams in their class to go forward to the finals in Boston, 1-4 November 2013. Good luck to them because the competition is fierce.

Trillion reasons
In 2010, Venter signed a deal with oil corporation ExxonMobil to design an algae that could extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into fuel. He estimated the deal’s worth at a conservative trillion dollars. There are big prizes at stake for those with the most imagination and far-sighted solutions. iGEM could be the starting block for these world-changing technologies.

Centre for Synthetic Biology and Bioexploitation
To help students and researchers at the University of Newcastle realise their projects, a new Centre for Synthetic Biology and Bioexploitation has also been launched. Links to the region’s chemical, extraction and pharmaceutical industries have already been established and a list of research specialities, including energy, the environment, agriculture, sensors, medicines and healthcare have been drawn up. The future looks bright for synthetic biology and for a brave new class of industry in England’s north east.