The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, or iGEM, is an annual event in which teams, mostly comprised of undergraduates, will compete against one another to design and create novel applications in the field of synthetic biology. The atmosphere surrounding the competition and the projects is a refreshing one: they offer enticing visions of how the field of synthetic biology can grow, and how the science can be communicated in an exciting, approachable and often colorful way. Furthermore, the iGEM teams are often highly interdisciplinary, featuring biologists, programmers, mathematics, and even artists (for communication and design).
Below are my impressions from the annual end of the year jamboree in which teams present their work. Last year, iGEM was organized into regional jamborees, with the finalists from each regional group being allowed to participate in the championship jamboree in the Stata Center at MIT. In an earlier post at this blog, you can find my impressions of the 2013 championship jamboree. This year, all teams participated in one giant jamboree, held in the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, MA. This jamboree was very well organized and was a very enjoyable event to attend, a testament to the efforts of the iGEM staff and volunteers.
Although every team and project is unique, many share similar themes. The jamboree this year was organized into several tracks, such as Energy or Health and Medicine. Within each track (or even across tracks), several teams had similar projects. Some of the more common themes this year included:
- Modification of Bacillus subtilis to detect and/or eliminate pathogens (plant or human pathogens, usually fungal in nature)
- Engineering strains of bacteria (typically E. coli) for bioremediation or biofuel production
- Creation of packing material, patterned paper, and even clothing out of bacterially derived cellulose (or other microbe-derived products)
In the remainder of this post, I discuss some of the iGEM team projects in detail, and some other impressions of the event. Please select 'Read More' to see the rest of this article. I also attended the 'Funders Panel' session. This panel featured leaders of community labs, members of large budget teams, and even a science minister / official for Slovenia and Canada (the former featuring a perspective on funding science and iGEM teams with a limited budget). Even representatives from business and capital investment firms were present.
What was your favorite iGEM team or project this year? Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments below!
Selected iGEM Teams from 2014
Below are a few of the team from this year's competition that I found noteworthy. I have not included in this list teams that won, since accolades and praise of their projects can be found elsewhere. My selection of mostly North American teams is coincidental; plenty of European and Asian teams (among others) also had very interesting projects, which I may describe in a future post.
Building a Toolkit to Engineer the Skin Bacterium, Propionibacterium Acnes
The idea behind this project was to create a skin 'probiotic', developing tools for modification and engineering with Propionibacterium acnes. Despite an interesting design and presentation (and demonstrated effort), the team was not successful in developing a transformation technique for this bacteria. Turning P. acnes into a chassis remains a challenge. The choice of this particular species, and not other microbes found on our skin, is an interesting one; P. acnes is known more for growing within a hair follicle (near a sebaceous gland), not uniformly covering the skin.
Clean Green Lipid Machines: Synthetic biology tools for microalgae
The team from the University of Concordia (Montreal), like the team from Pittsburgh, focused on improving the tools for a new chassis. However, the chassis chosen by this team was a unicellular microalgae, opening up new avenues for synthetic biology projects in a photosynthetic organism. They also seemed to be more successful, introducing fluorescent and antibiotic resistance genes into Chlamydomonas species. As outreach to the community, the team also created a 2048-style synthetic biology themed game!
Developing an ultra-sensitive response in CRISPR circuitry
CRISPR-based projects have been popular in recent years, and the Duke team set about trying to modify the CRISPR components to create a highly-sensitive response system. They took two approaches, the more interesting (and successful) of which was the molecular titration approach, in which decoy binding sites are used to control the relative amounts of available factors and RNAs in their system.
JuicyPrint, a 3D printer using bacteria to print cellulose forms on demand
London BioHackspace (Website)
Contemporary 3D printers use movement of a robotic arm or platform to carefully deposit a liquid polymer and generate plastics molded to a desired shape. Indeed, one of the projects from the Duke iGEM 2014 team was to demonstrate how common lab equipment (such as tube racks) can be made economically using a 3D Printer.
The London BioHackspace took a different approach to 3D printing. Like several other iGEM teams, they utilized the ability of  to produce bacterial cellulose, but this community lab in London took this production a step further. The production of cellulose in these bacteria was placed under control of a light responsive promoter. Thus, rather than complicated robotics, all was needed was a patterned display of lights to active gene expression in a large culture tank of bacteria. Only activated bacteria (those not exposed to the red light, which repressed gene expression) generated the cellulose, allowing patterns to be formed. Layer by layer, 3D objects could be printed by adjusting the height of the culture media.
Next to the poster of this team was a few examples of materials printed in this fashion. The printer appears to have worked, as demonstrated by the different designs and shapes created. In addition, the team did a study of different growth media to find which supported bacterial growth and cellulose production the best. However, this wasn't your typical experiment on bacterial growth; the media tested included boiled potatoes, tomato and orange juice! This data indicated that fruit juices worked the best, hence the name of the project.
Advice from the Funders Panel
Running an iGEM team can be an expensive proposition. Fees for registering the team and attending the Jamboree alone can run several thousand dollars. In addition, many universities elect to pay their students during the summer, due to the significant time commitment necessary. These intense summer sessions and the demands of the project can make maintaining part-time jobs difficult for the students. Finally, there are costs involved in implementing the project design, such as reagents, cells, and possibly equipment. According to the iGEM website, the average budget for a team is approximately $40,000. This is assuming a team of 7 students paid at $4,000 each, which comprises the majority of the calculated budget.
From big budgets to small, teams need to find one or more funding sources to be successful. The iGEM organization itself recommends many sources. The 'Funders Panel', which consisted of iGEM veterans and other people involved in funding for iGEM teams, offered advice and insights into team budgets and how to raise the necessary funds. Their advice can be summarized as follows:
- Leave No Stone Un-turned: Funding for an iGEM team can come from many sources. Sponsorship from industry is common for iGEM teams, especially since such donations can be tax-exempt. Typical sources include biological supply companies, such as IDT and New England Biolabs, but can also include startups that could potentially benefit from the research done by the iGEM team (e.g. Stanford 2014 team and Ecovative)
- Preparation is Key: have a compelling message and project idea crafted, with an associated website and related materials, ready to go before launching a kick-starter campaign, contacting the media or beginning to tap a majority of the donors.
- Be Bold and Passionate: running an iGEM team is an ambitious endeavor, and so the fund raising approach should be equally ambitious. Synthetic biology has tremendous potential for many industries in the future, and companies may be willing to make investments in an iGEM team to help position themselves for this future.
- Spread the message: The willingness to offer free seminars to businesses
demonstrates a passion and also helps to educate the people in charge of budgeting decisions at the business. This is a good way to get your foot in the door and make important contacts.
- Be patient: Fund raising efforts do not always have an immediate payout. Expect a delay of months or even a year before seeing a commitment of sponsorship in some cases. Making contacts is important to building a base or foundation of donors.
Other Impressions from the Jamboree
The event was a lot of fun! The iGEM team put together a very nice jamboree, complete with networking events, community dinners and lunches, and social events. A particular nice touch was the banners around the convention center, highlighting the work from each team in a very stylistic and colorful way. It was great to meet new people, see teams from around the world, and reconnect with people I've seen in past events. The only drawback to the event, which is inevitable for events of this size, is the fact that you can't attend all the talks! (Several teams talk in different rooms at the same time, with several sessions running throughout the day).