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Wrapping up iGEM 2014

Members of the University of Maryland iGEM team: (left-right) Nathan Barber, Adip Bhargav, Aditya Biswas, Pavel Vlasov, Janine Taira and Iowis Zhu

The annual iGEM Giant Jamboree wrapped up a week ago, and with the excitment subsiding a bit, it’s worth taking a final look at the event. Overall, the iGEM team has created an amazing organization and competition. Randy Rettberg and the rest of the staff are not only exposing students to cutting edge science, but getting them deeply involved early on in their careers. It’s worth repeating from previous posts that the enthusiasm of the iGEM participants, especially the students for whom it was designed, is unlike that seen at any other conference.

There are many things to take away from iGEM. Importantly, the several thousand team members participating in the competition clearly gain experience thinking about the implications of their work, as well as big-picture issues surrounding scientific research and synthetic biology. They are well aware of concerns held by the public regarding potential risks of creating synthetic life or genetically modifying microbes. Stephen Lee, a pre-med student at Vanderbilt University, said “One of the biggest issues in the field is gaining not only public awareness but also public acceptance of synthetic biology because a lot of people think, sometimes rightly, that it’s a dangerous field to be delving into. The accusations of playing god and all that and actually engineering organisms doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. They think it’s dangerous or immoral. I think the exact opposite; I think synthetic biology has the potential to help a lot of people, to really do good as long as it’s used responsibly.” Similarly, Janine Taira, a Sophomore at the University of Maryland, said “I think the biggest challenge facing the synthetic biology community is just the stigma behind it. The public is oftentimes very afraid of anything that seems unnatural, and I feel like that puts a big hold on many projects that have potential to do a lot of good in the world.”

The hope then is for these students to continue to acknowledge these concerns, understand their origins, and work with each other and the public to build trust and understanding. Because synthetic biology is such a broad field with so many applications, the concerns are understandable. Dismissing them would be devastating, both in terms of the trust between scientists and the public, and, as Taira said, for projects with great potential to help improve lives. iGEM clearly understands this need for effective two-way communication, emphasizing public outreach and education as key components of each project.

With iGEM, participants are also placed in highly collaborative scientific environments, allowing them to learn as teams by taking advantage of the diversity of backgrounds and interests within each group. Lee said, “I think the biggest thing is that iGEM has been a lot more educational for me. I came in as a freshman, I had never done research before. I wasn’t aware of different protocols. I didn’t know how to do PCR and elementary procedures that I always wanted to learn, and iGEM let me learn them. I had to do iGEM before I could do research on my own. It’s the whole educational element, the fact that as a freshman I learned all those methods. With personal research I was kind of out on my own forming hypotheses and testing ideas for myself. With iGEM everybody is right there, and the people who I founded the team with are so knowledgable.” Adip Bhargar, a Junior on the University of Maryland team said that iGEM seems “less competitive, more collaborative” than other fields.

It is also exciting to see so many young scientists both aware of and involved in the development of new technology. Lee mentioned the work of Craig Venter’s group creating synthetic life. “[They] synthesized a cell […] that started reproducing. I thought that was really neat because while modifying the genome is one thing, replacing the genome is a whole other thing.” Then, when asked what he would do if he could make any tool for research, Lee said, “I think a lot about automation in synthetic biology. I think it would be really interesting to have some kind of apparatus that you could put your reagents in and actually get plasmids out. Just the idea that you could have this kind of modular system for synthetic biology […] to automate the whole process.” He mentioned that his team had talked a lot about having an all-in-one device like this, then pointed out that a startup presenting at the company showcase actually brought a unit to the event that “was similar to that…it wasn’t modular but you could run a gel and run a PCR and spin your samples in one machine.” Members of the University of Maryland team pointed to work by another team developing ways to break down methane to methanol. Additionally, they were excited about the applications for 3D printing and its integration with biology, looking to the future when it may be possible to actually print cells and perhaps even DNA [note: Cambrian Genomics is indeed doing just that: Cambrian Genomics laser prints DNA to rewrite the physical world].

While synthetic biology does indeed seem to be built around collaboration and application (iGEM certainly is), one concern might be that students involved in the field become unnecessarily frustrated by basic research. The traditional academic research system may have its flaws, but one hopes that participants in events like iGEM use their experiences to help improve that system rather than become jaded by it. Additionally, carrying out basic research on biological systems is still highly relevant, and continuing to gain understanding into the fundamental principles of biology will help improve future applications.

This leads to the final point about the work at iGEM. The “anything is possible” attitude permeating the event was incredible. Indeed, talk after talk highlighted the fact that relatively small groups of students were actually taking science fiction and making it real. iGEM deserves great credit for encouraging students in this way, helping them to avoid becoming boxed in by convention. Of course, the day-to-day realities of scientific research – which these students experienced during their year of project development – often force some tempering of expectations. Optimistic caution, one could call it, a feature long part of the scientific community. Jason Kahn, an advisor to the University of Maryland team, said, “sometimes people would like to talk about the very long term plans, but our training in writing scientific papers is to really back off that. You’re allowed to speculate a little bit but, I think there’s a natural tendency towards caution. So it’s not all bad, some of it is just how we are socialized into being very careful about not exaggerating what we’ve actually found.” Hearing statements like this from experienced scientists – who at the same time are encouraging the students to think big – is extremely valuable. And, the students seem to be generally aware of the long road ahead. Iowis Zhu, another member of the University of Maryland team, said, “I think for long-term applications, the [biobricks] need to be better characterized […]it’s not always clear whether the parts actually work […] there is a lot of potential, but there still needs to be a lot more work.”

Team NCTU Formosa presents their functional insect trap at the iGEM finals

Thus, the greatest strength of iGEM may be its apparent ability to encourage participants to think about the moon-shot ideas and work towards them, while allowing the teams to experience the frustration of setbacks and failure. As Rettberg pointed out in his opening remarks, not many of the standardized parts brought to early iGEM competitions were very functional. Now, working prototypes are being built, and companies are even being founded on iGEM projects. Amazing progress for an event just closing out its first decade.

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