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iGEM 2015 Giant Jamboree: What’s All the Noise About?

By Guest Contributor, Grant Vousden-Dishington

Last weekend, 259 international teams descended on the Hynes Convention Center in Boston for the 11th iGEM competition, the second Giant Jamboree. The intercollegiate competition is based on a 2003 summer course at MIT and is now overseen by the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) Foundation. Each team of students spends the summer creating new genetic constructs and biological systems for purposes ranging from addressing global issues to satisfying scientific curiosity. The work done by students is akin to academically oriented activities like mock trial and robotics teams. There are, however, many differences separating iGEM from other extracurricular projects. The chief difference between them is the absence of a specific task or problem to solve for the teams. The foundation provides each registered team with a DNA distribution kit, including five high-capacity well-plates of plasmid backbones. These starter sets of genetic parts are used by the groups to make their first set of molecular devices using standardized cloning methods and interchangeable parts called “BioBricks.

Bioengineering is only one draw of the iGEM experience, however. Mirroring the oversight processes required for published work in the biosciences, teams are required to consider and report on the safety or potential dangers of their creations. This is accomplished through a combination of their own testing and consulting with faculty advisers to ensure that the products of the teams’ work do not present any current or future danger. Teams are also encouraged to go beyond bioengineering and consider human practices and assess the impact their creations have on the lifestyles and cultures of human populations. These exercises aren’t simply for the learning and practice of students, either. Several past iGEM projects have progressed onto publications and start-ups. For many teams, the event serves not just as a learning experience but a legitimate first contribution to the field of synthetic biology. 

Pictured: FBI Supervisory Special Agent Edward You. Image Credit: iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight.
Pictured: FBI Supervisory Special Agent Edward You. Image Credit: iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight.

Interesting Company
With the rapid growth in the biotech industry and the level of commitment required to compete in iGEM, it comes as no surprise that several companies sponsor and attend the event, seeking candidates for the next generation’s best talent. Outside the corporate world, there’s also interest in the jamboree from biosafety and biosecurity orgnaizations. Namely, the FBI has sponsored, in part, the iGEM competition since 2009 and regularly attends. This year, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Ed You gave the final presentation at the jamboree before the judging closed. This was a plenary talk on the role biologists play in national security and why the FBI is interested in synthetic biology. Aside from his expertise in bioterrorism and advising other arms of the government on how to respond to potential chemical threats, You shared the story of his beginnings as a researcher in biochemistry, starting as a student at the University of California at Irvine and later the University of Southern California. You offered his from student to researcher to government official, one who even advised Congress and its allies on the benefits of supporting organizations like iGEM, as one of the many possible paths open to participants beyond graduate school or start-up founding, and he emphasized the need for scientifically and technically minded engineers to be involved with their national offices.

For a presentation given by a characteristically secretive institution oft referenced, maligned, or spoofed in popular culture, and despite the mention of several severe cases of bioterrorism, the FBI’s session was relaxed and optimistic, with one of the speakers even hopping off stage to wander around the audience while delivering his speech. This is probably owed to the fact that You and his colleagues are familiar with the iGEM environment and have collegial relationships with many current and former organizers. The FBI plenary was preceeded by comments from John Cumbers, CEO of SynbioBeta and iGEM alumnus, and such an introduction from an event veteran greatly reduced the barrier between the young audience and the experts on stage. Even the talk of Dual-Uses, where a biotechnology intended for one application is repurposed for another, usually malicious aim, did little to bring down the excitement of participants. 

Up Close With Some of the Teams
The majority of the competition is conducted via many concurrent presentation sessions spread over three days, but Saturday and Sunday concluded with two-hour poster sessions in the exhibit hall, during which all attendees were able to move and converse freely. Everything from friendly chats about each team’s experience preparing for the jamboree to grilling competitors on the most technical details of their projects, looking for any fault or weakness in their designs, were fair game. Of course, the iGEM judges also made use of the opportunity to further scrutinize the technical rigor of each presentation and sort the most deserving candidates from those that needed more refinement. Most importantly, as most of presentation sessions were organized by tracks, the poster session provided a more accessible way to see the full range of applications pursued by participating teams.

Because there are too many posters to to be able to visit all of them within the given time, we reached out over twitter asking which posters to visit, and four teams invited us to come speak with them. Heidelberg, the first team to respond, pursued basic synthetic biology project which they proposed could have many applications. Using selectively binding single-strands of RNA or DNA called “aptamers” and providing a wealth of models and simulations of their work, the team aimed to functionalize nucleic acids to take on a variety of central roles within synthetic biology, such as higher affinity replacements for antibodies, aka “AptaBodies.”

Next, the team from the University of Edinburgh told us about a project on the opposite end of the spectrum, one they hoped would have a public impact. With the UK dealing with abuse of illicit and unregulated drugs, the team has been developing a paper-based, inexpensive biosensor for measuring drug purity. Using an enzymatic mechanism, the color of the paper-based dye changes in response to the presence of the drug, a change the team hopes to develop an app for that won’t need to rely on subjective interpretation of the results. So far, they have developed biosensors for heroin, PMA (aka Ecstasy), and 2,4-Dinitrophenol, a diet pill with potential for abuse, but their system is designed to be easily repurposed with other custom enzymes for detection of other substances.

On Sunday, after tweeting a stinging series of bee-related puns to the #iGEM2015 hashtag, we visited the University of British Columbia team and their project addressing pesticide-induced colony collapse disorder in beehives. The essential technique employed by the project is called a “gene drive,” where enough organisms in a population are genetically modified that the genes proliferate through most population members after several generations. However, it’s not the bee’s genome being manipulated in this case. Instead, UBC modified the gut microbes of bees to be able to catabolize the pesticides in question safely and reinserted them into the bees’ digestive tracts. Being highly social, the hope is that a few bees could spread these microbes to others in their own colonies.

Finally, the University of Waterloo‘s team developed a refined method to enhance the flexibility and efficiency of CRISPR-Cas9 genetic editing. The project developed an sgRNA backbone with enough added restriction sites to allow multiple sequences to be targeted with much less cloning than is required by current protocols. This flexibility, they hope, will make it easier for researchers to experiment with different genetic targets in early stages. With news of the nearby Broad Institute’s discovery of Cpf1 as a promising contender for Cas9’s importance in the method breaking just days before the jamboree, it remains to be seen whether such enhancements will have a chance to be used in research or if the rapidly growing field of genome editing will adopt the new complex.

The TU Delft iGEM team with their custom biofilm printer made from K'NEX parts. Image Credit: iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight.
The TU Delft iGEM team with their custom biofilm printer made from K’NEX parts. Image Credit: iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight.

The Finalists
While every project presenting had its own merits and aims, several ultimately would stand out from the crowd. More than 63,000 ballots were accumulated between the judges and participants while the “Super Blood Moon” illuminated the skies, from which only six teams would be chosen as finalists to present on the final day. Though most teams wouldn’t present in the finals, many specialized awards recognizing the efforts of various teams toward attributes of their projects, such as manufacturing, software design, high quality model systems, and the BioBrick components they characterized. Two overgrad (BGU Israel and TU Delft), three undergrad (Czech Republic, Heidelberg, and William & Mary), and one high school teams (TAS Taipei) were this year’s grand prize finalists, with TU Delft and William & Mary taking the grand prizes in their respective divisions. In addition to the grand prizes, 115 gold medals, 57 silver medals, and 55 bronze medals were awarded. One overgrad and one undergrad team were also chosen to receive awards for best performance in each of the 15 tracks at the jamboree.

Each of the grand prize winning teams were exemplary for different reasons. TU Delft‘s project created a customized biofilm as the core goal, but it was how the team went above-and-beyond to build a low-cost printer for this biofilm material out of refurbished parts and a chassis out of K’NEX parts that gave them the edge. TAS Taipei, the only high-school finalist, addressed an important medical issue with their project: chronic inflammation, a recurring symptom in many serious diseases that contributes to the fatalities they’re responsible for. Though they were one of the youngest teams, they tackled a severe human immune system issue with their “Granzyme B” protease. Compared to these two, William & Mary‘s project on “characterization of promoter-driven transcriptional noise in E. coli” may seem rather straight forward, but as their “NOISE”-emblazoned t-shirts reminded us, they’re addressing one of the most fundamental issues of biological measurements. Whatever genetic system researchers work with, the intrinsic noise of a fluorescent reporter is an unavoidable problem, but most promoter specifications don’t characterize this noise. William & Mary’s decision to examine three such promoters, analyze their noise, create models to predict the impact on variability of different plasmid qualities, and provide the software they developed all neatly encapsulates the quintessential elements of all scientific endeavors. The level of rigor sans flair is what earned them the undergrad grand prize.

Why is this important?
There are many other facets of the jamboree that aren’t mentioned here, but in concluding this review, there’s one more question deserving an answer: why should anyone, especially synthetic biologists, care about something like the iGEM competition? Confronted with wave after wave of news appearing everyday on developments in synthetic biology, what makes it important for PLOS Synbio to cover an intercollegiate competition? That’s because science isn’t separable from its own education. The iGEM team members aren’t “future scientists;” their experience with science has already started, with the jamboree being the first step for many. What distinguishes synthetic biology from many other biosciences is the rapidity with which it’s left the ivory tower. It isn’t practiced just by academics, and it’s found homes in places from DIY garage set-ups, community hacker spaces, schools, and biotech firms. That’s why the PLOS Synbio community and others shouldn’t constrain the important ideas about synthetic biology to those that come from universities, and it’s also why PLOS and the iGEM Foundation will be embarking on a joint venture for synthetic biology work that is yet to be announced. To fully embrace the benefits of such an open field, synthetic biologists must also be willing to participate in fora that are new to science, and integrative events like the iGEM Giant Jamboree are a prime place to begin.

GEM from above. Image Credit: iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight.
GEM from above. Image Credit: iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight.


You can follow Grant on Twitter @usethespacebar.

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