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iGEM competitors gear up for 2010 challenge

Suzanne E. Winter

Student-led research teams from around the globe are preparing to unveil their genetic engineering projects in next month’s genetic engineering contest.

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Student groups from around the world are engaged in the final preparations for next month’s 2010 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Championship Jamboree, which will be held Nov. 6–8 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The competition encourages young scientists to develop their research skills while they design, implement, and run an efficient and functional laboratory project.

The ETH Zurich 2010 iGEM team developed an approach to remotely control the movement of an E. Coli bacterium. Source: Moritz Lang and ETHZ iGEM.

Last summer, student teams who registered for this year’s competition were given a kit of items from the iGEM Registry of Standard Biological Parts that the participants must incorporate into their genetically engineered biological system. They then had several months to manipulate DNA to achieve their research objectives and then send the submission to the judges. Next month, all the teams will come together at the conference to share in each other’s achievements.

“I had read about and seen projects from iGEM, and when I heard that our university was participating, I just thought, ‘Wow,’” said Moritz Lang, a computational systems biology PhD student in the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (ETHZ). In the ETHZ team’s project, called E. lemming, people control E. coli through a joystick. The project uses the manipulation of chemotaxis mechanisms via image processing algorithms to achieve this result.

Due to the limited time period of the competition, troubleshooting was torturous, but the ETHZ team is now enthusiastic about the positive results they’ve recently achieved. The E. lemming project has developed a protocol that could change both synthetic biology and its after-school partner, video games, as espoused on their team’s wiki.

Each groups must document each step of their research project on a team wiki, which is available for the world to read, a step that deviates from traditional research practices and publications. Instead of being restricted by an embargo, the research teams are encouraged to check out the competition. “That’s really different, but the whole iGEM thing is different from real science since it’s so short, and everybody’s so involved. So it doesn’t feel like a real competition,” said Sonja Billerbeck, a PhD candidate at ETHZ. “It’s nice to see what other people are doing, and, actually, we’ve already gotten mail and contributions from other teams asking about our project or asking for help. This would never happen if we didn’t know about other projects.”

Not only does iGEM encourage students to step up and design their own research protocols, but it gives them the experience of putting a lab together, securing funds, and learning how to be an administrator as well as a scientist. “Those guys went out and got as much support as they could on their own,” said David Shintani, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and an iGEM team mentor.

The UNR team has engineered plant cells to act as remote sensors of environmental stresses; for example, stress-inducible promoters have been inserted into plant genomes to indicate high salt or cadmium content of the soil by changing the plant’s color. If successful, this genetic modification could be used in any plant to ensure health throughout its growth.

To supplement the grant money they received from the university and Nevada IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (Nevada Inbre), the UNR team has organized ice cream socials, contacted local sponsors, and hosted a pub crawl. “The reason we did the bar crawl and the ice cream socials is that we weren’t really sure how the budget was going to shake out for next year,” explained UNR biochemistry student Nick Noel. The UNR team’s research protocol incorporates short term and long term goals for the 2010 and future iGEM competitions, allocating their budget across multiple years, a skill not learned by undergraduate researchers who complete their thesis projects in one to two semesters. “They really learned a lot,” says Shintani. “They’re all ready to become [principal investigators] PIs now.”

The UNR team has engineered plant cells to act as remote sensors of environmental stresses. Source: Nevada iGEM wiki.

While both teams are busy with the final experiments on their projects as iGEM draws nearer, they have had a moment to reflect on the experience so far. “For students who have never done a research project, it’s a really great experience because you really need to come up with a whole project,” said Billerbeck. “[iGEM] is a good playground from the beginning of a project to its realization—although you also learn about the frustrations and sometimes you don’t feel so well.”

Despite the difficulties and the work left to do in the remaining few weeks, the teams are excited to share their projects with other like-minded undergraduates at the Jamboree. “I couldn’t have asked to work with a better group of people,” said Randy Pares, a biochemistry student on the UNR iGEM team. “Everyone has a different background and different strengths and everyone helps each other. We have Dr. Shintani and Dr. [Christie] Howard as our advisors, but really they handed the reins over to us.”

Shintani was impressed with the effort put forth by the team that he mentored. “It’s really their show,” said Shintani. “We’re just kind of there to make sure they don’t burn the place down.”