iGEM: bio-Lego for big kids

By Rhiannon Kirkland

Synthetic biologists are a lot like children playing with Lego. But while a child uses plastic blocks to construct elaborate creations, synthetic biologists use genes and DNA to build new organisms and bacteria that create vaccines and biofuels and cure diseases.

The International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition is an undergraduate challenge to design the best synthetic biology systems. This year’s championship sees a U of C team, comprised of 15 students, competing for the fourth time at iGEM. iGEM began in 2003 with four teams and has grown to 105 for this November.

“Synthetic biology is the next generation of biotechnology — and there’s so much that you can do with synthetic biology,” said fourth-year health sciences major and U of C iGEM team leader Thane Kubik. “Anything that a living cell can do, you can probably appropriate that and re-engineer with synthetic biology and probably combine it in new and incredibly bizarre ways.”

Members of the U of C iGEM team are working to design a cell signaling mechanism that will help cells work together to accomplish their task more efficiently, said Kubik.

“There’s a whole class of genes and proteins that tie the whole thing together,” said fifth-year health sciences major and Second Life team leader Patrick King. “They serve as messengers, activators or oppressors for genes, they turn things on or off, they communicate between cells. That’s the type of project we’re working on.”

The U of C’s team is trying an online universe called Second Life to serve as an educational platform promoting synthetic biology and to help teach future teams the basic concepts and science behind synthetic biology, explained King.

“The test of our project will really come next year in iGEM 2010, when the first students of that year need to learn all these concepts again,” said King. “We’re going to see how many students we can get to log in and check it out here — as opposed to doing the lecture format as we’ve done for the last few years — to prime them with the knowledge they need to do this project.”

The 15 member iGEM team was selected in January and spent the winter session preparing. The team will work full-time throughout the summer to develop their system and online resources.

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