Can a group of students do real research in the span of a single summer?

Have you heard about iGEM?

I first heard about iGEM during my undergraduate studies. Someone had left flyers all over the cafeteria, saying that YOU could be part of a team of students doing real research by modifying the genetic make-up of organisms to get them to do useful and amazing things. That same day I was at my computer googling “What is Synthetic Biology”. And I was amazed.

 

iGEM opens the door to synthetic biology

The iGEM competition is the first entry-point and the first view into synthetic biology for a vast number of students at both university and high-school level. Without exposure to iGEM, many researchers in the field today might never have gotten into this field. And this is one of the primary goals of the iGEM foundation; to educate the scientists of tomorrow about synthetic biology. Considering the fact that Synthetic biology is still an emerging field, and that most people on the street, or even in a university, would not be able to tell you what it is, the education and insight given by the iGEM competition is crucial for the growth of the field.

Today is the first day of the 2018 Giant iGEM Jamboree. The Jamboree is the place where all teams of students gather to present what they have crafted in the lab, to be judged by an academic jury, and to see who takes home the Grand Prize.  It’s a five day conference in Boston, US, and in addition to the 300+ presentations from competing teams, there are also additional lectures, seminars and activities, including a very popular lecture on biosecurity given by non-other than the FBI. This year the Jamboree also features lectures by keynote speakers, including one of the biggest names in all of synthetic biology, even considered the founding father of field; George Church.

Church has been involved in projects like the sequencing of the human genome (HUGO-project read), the newly started synthesis of the human genome (HUGO-project write), attempts at cloning the woolly mammoth, and the development of transplantable human organs grown in pigs.Church is also the founder of Ginkgo Bioworks, one of the fastest growing synthetic biology companies of today. If anyone can inspire the synthetic biologists of tomorrow, it’s this man.

 

How much significant research can one do in a single summer?

The iGEM competition provides not just an informational and inspirational platform for young synthetic biologists, it also empowers them to do their own research and to feel like they can do significant work that can solve real problems. However, xpecting to get such work fully finished within the span of a summer is optimistic, bordering on delusional, and the majority of iGEM projects remain unfinished when presented at the Jamboree. Most projects do only make it as far as proof of principle, rather than with a finished and fully tested product.  Despite this, the general idea of the project can still be assessed, and whatever labwork has actually been finished. Fully functional products are however a rarity.

There are success-stories though, like Imperial College London’s project 2014 was able to edit bacteria to produce cellulose, and lo and behold, at the Jamboree they were able to present actual sheets of cellulose produced by their bacteria. That same year, University College Cork managed to get their bacteria to produce a polymer previously only found in hagfish slime, a strong polymer similar to spider-silk. This iGEM team was the first to ever synthetically produce this polymer. But those are 2 out of more than 250 projects, many of which don’t even finished putting the engineered genes together in their selected organism, let alone get far enough to test if they actually do what they are meant to do. Because research takes time. And a single summer is not a lot of time.

So the iGEM competition is a marvellous tool to spread awareness of an impressive and emerging field of science, and to give students a taste of actual research and problem solving with synthetic biology, even if most iGEM projects fall short of actually solving any problems.

Regardless of any shortcomings, I would not trade my iGEM experiences cheaply. I’ve participated twice, and both experiences gave me valuable insights and experience in research, project planning and the field of synthetic biology at large. What’s more, it was also some of the most fun and most rewarding things I have done. If you’re at University or Highschool, or even in a Biohacker-space, and you have even the slightest interest in synthetic biology and biotechnology; this is the competition for you.

 

If you want to participate in iGEM 2019, ask if your University or Highschool has a Team, or get more information here to start your own team!

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