iGEM - The international Genetically Engineered Machine competition
We believe in the possibility of engineered biological systems, but the only way to test such an engineering hypothesis is to try it practically. The iGEM competition facilitates this by asking students to design and build genetic machines. This generates practical data on the feasibility of engineering biology, and also on best practices. It also provides a powerful educational experience for the students working to overcome the many technical challenges.
Our broader goals are:
- To enable the systematic engineering of biology;
- To promote the open and transparent development of tools for engineering biology; and
- To help construct a society that can productively apply biological technology
At the core of these activities is the notion of a standard biological part that is well specified and able to be paired with other parts into subassemblies and whole systems. Once the parameters of these parts are determined and standardized, simulation and design of genetic systems will become easier and more reliable. The Registry of Standard Biological Parts has been created to achieve these goals.
During MIT's Independent Activity Periods (IAP) of January 2003, student teams designed biological oscillators coupled to fluorescent reporters. These genetic blinkers were intended to improve on Elowitz's Repressilator. One team coupled two oscillators to even out the oscillations. Another used cell-cell signaling to coordinate the oscillators in a colony. During the January 2004 IAP, teams designed genetic systems to create cellular patterns varying from bull’s-eyes to polka dots and even dynamic designs where cells swim together. From these designs, standard biological parts were designed and synthesized.
Summer of 2004 brought the first Synthetic Biology Competition. Student teams from five schools (Princeton, MIT, Caltech, UT Austin, and Boston University) competed to build cellular state machines and counters. The teams came together for a jamboree in early November to compare their results. The most graphic project was "photographic biofilm" that could capture an image.
In the summer of 2005, student teams from thirteen schools (Berkeley, Caltech, Cambridge UK, Davidson, ETH Zurich, Harvard, MIT, Oklahoma, Penn State, Princeton, Toronto, UCSF, and UT Austin) participated in the 2005 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Later, during the first weekend of November, over 150 of these students, instructors, and PIs came together for a jamboree to share and celebrate their work.
The Igem 2005 student projects displayed the designs of chemotaxis regulation systems, cell-cell genetic communications systems, cellular/biological wires, thermometers, biological sketch pads (drawing systems), cellular relay races, a digital counter, and many more.
While at this early stage none of the projects were fully functional, many of the required subsystems demonstrated correct operation. Some of the student teams are continuing to work on their projects. One surprising result of Igem 2005 is that several of the schools have begun to incorporate Synthetic Biology into their undergraduate curriculum based on work from the 2005 event. Schools are now working on their iGEM summer 2006.