Issue Date: November 17, 2008
A Jamboree With Reusable Parts
The young field of synthetic biology has a particularly dynamic program for attracting young people to its fold: iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine), a competition in which teams of undergraduate and high school students try to develop the best synthetic biology projects.
As part of that effort, students create and characterize "parts," genetic elements that not only are used in their own projects but are also archived in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Registry of Standard Biological Parts (partsregistry.org) for later reuse in other projects. Such reusable parts have become an important resource for research in the field of synthetic biology, and efforts are afoot to make them even more useful by characterizing and documenting them more carefully.
Registry parts include operators, which are segments of DNA to which repressor proteins bind to prevent gene transcription; cell-cell signaling elements, which produce defined outputs in response to specific chemical inputs; and riboregulators, which can be used to suppress the expression of particular genes by preventing translation of proteins they express.
In the iGEM program, student teams are asked to use existing parts and new ones they develop to construct synthetic biology projects. The projects are presented and judged at an annual jamboree, the 2008 version of which was held earlier this month at MIT. The Slovenia team won the grand prize at iGEM 2008 for its design of a vaccine to fight Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that causes gastritis and ulcers.
Examples of other recent iGEM projects include bacteria engineered to fluoresce in different colors on the basis of temperature and a biosensor for iron detection.
"There are a lot of stories of success" in the program, Princeton University electrical engineer Ron Weiss said in a presentation about iGEM at Synthetic Biology 4.0, held last month in Hong Kong. "These students are going to be the stars of the future for synthetic biology."
Growth in numbers of jamboree participants has been exponential in the past few years. This year, 85 teams of about 10 students each were registered to attend. "Soon everybody in the world will be doing synthetic biology," Weiss quipped.
Some of the registry parts created by iGEM teams and academic researchers haven't been that well characterized. But a new program called BioFAB could change that. BioFAB will be a production facility for characterizing, storing, and documenting standard biological parts.
A group of research institutions, including Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; UC San Francisco; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; the University of Alberta; MIT; and Arizona State University, have expressed interest in funding a BioFAB pilot operation with 29 employees. Other institutions can sign on, too.
Yet to be determined is what the relationship should be between BioFAB and industry. "Could you build the next generation of biotechnology on an open technology platform that didn't depend absolutely on exclusive ownership of small numbers of genetic functions?" Stanford assistant professor of bioengineering Drew Endy asked at the conference in Hong Kong. "It seems like there's a way to do this, where the product of the BioFAB could be in the public domain, yet the users of the components could protect some aspects of their downstream systems without giving everything away. That's still to be worked out. What we'd like to see happen is an ecology of industry develop around this resource such that it might ultimately support the operations," Endy said.
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