What is the iGEM Competition?
The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM)
is the premiere undergraduate Synthetic Biology competition. Student teams are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts
. Working at their own schools over the summer, they use these parts and new parts of their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells. This project design and competition format is an exceptionally motivating and effective teaching method.
iGEM Competition History
iGEM began in January of 2003 with a month-long course at MIT during their Independent Activities Period (IAP). The students designed biological systems to make cells blink. This design course grew to a summer competition with 5 teams in 2004, 13 teams in 2005 - the first year that the competition grew internationally - 32 teams in 2006, 54 teams in 2007, 84 teams in 2008, 112 teams in 2009, 130 teams in 2010, and 165 teams in 2011. Projects range from a rainbow of pigmented bacteria, to banana and wintergreen smelling bacteria, an arsenic biosensor, Bactoblood, and buoyant bacteria.
Can simple biological systems be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells? Or is biology so complicated that every case is unique?
Example team projects:
- Arsenic Biodetector: The aim was to develop a bacterial biosensor that responds to a range of arsenic concentrations and produces a change in pH that can be calibrated in relation to arsenic concentration. The team's goal was to help many under-developed countries, in particular Bangladesh, to detect arsenic contamination in water. The proposed device was intended be more economical, portable and easier to use in comparison with other detectors.
- BactoBlood: The UC Berkeley team worked to develop a cost-effective red blood cell substitute constructed from engineered E. coli bacteria. The system is designed to safely transport oxygen in the bloodstream without inducing sepsis, and to be stored for prolonged periods in a freeze-dried state.
- E. Chromi: The Cambridge team project strived to facilitate biosensor design and construction. They designed and characterised two types of parts - Sensitivity Tuners and Colour Generators -- E. coli engineered to produce different pigments in response to different concentrations of an inducer. The availability of these parts revolutionized the path of future biosensor design.
- Heidelberg: In addition to their wetlab project, the Heidelberg team dedicated themselves to the ethics aspect of their project. Their aim was to inform the public, prevent fear, and give the public the knowledge necessary to form an opinion on the upcoming field of synthetic biology. The team pursued this because of the thought that "only a well-informed public is able to develop a non-prejudiced and profound opinion about synthetic biology."
Read more about past team projects on the individual iGEM year websites.
Want to read more about iGEM?
- Technology Review: Rewiring Cells:
How a handful of MIT electrical engineers pioneered synthetic biology, May/June 2011
- BioTechniques: iGEM Competitors Gear Up for 2010 Challenge, 19 October 2010
- NYT Magazine: Do-It-Yourself Genetic Engineering, 10 February 2010
What about these standard parts?
The development of well-specified, standard, and interchangable biological parts is a critical step towards the design and construction of integrated biological systems. The Registry of Standard Biological Parts supports this goal by recording and indexing biological parts that are currently being built and offering the resources to construct new parts, devices, and systems. This support has expanded into the areas of standards for biological part families, parameter measurement and quality control, and development of an open community of biological engineers and scientists.
iGEM teams and synthetic biology labs are required to contribute the parts that they make to the Registry in the spirit of the Get & Give philosophy. Every year, the number of parts contributed by associated groups increases the collection of parts that can be used by groups in future years.
How do I start a team?
Whether you are a student interested in learning how to use standard parts to build an interesting system, a instructor looking for something to excite your students, or a professor intrigued by the idea of Synthetic Biology, there are several important keys to starting an iGEM team:
- Make sure to read the Requirements
- Find (2!) instructors
- Find students
- Work hard
Read more about how to Start A Team or look at the iGEM 2011 team list for teams near you.
Where is iGEM?
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(Gears reflect teams from iGEM 2010 and before.)