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iGEM: the student synthetic biology experience

1 Apr, 2010


European teams, including Imperial and Cambridge at the 2009 iGEM jamboree finals at MIT.

Making anything work in genetic engineering is difficult in itself, but doing it in 10 weeks is remarkable, even more so when many of your team know little about biology and have never previously stepped foot in a lab.


Last week I wrote about the iGEM synthetic biology competition and it still astounds me that the participants are undergraduate students. But what is it really like to take part in iGEM?

iGEM teams are usually made up of 6-10 first and second year undergraduates from a mix of disciplines (biology, physics, engineering, computer science). Different teams run in different ways, but most – the highly successful Imperial College London and University of Cambridge teams included – run some form of crash-course in synthetic biology for those interested in getting involved (as one of the Cambridge students described it to me, “Two years of biology in two weeks”).

A selection of those students go on to form the team proper, and that’s when the real fun starts. Imperial start things on the first Monday of July, giving their team 10-12 weeks to think up, design, create, model and test their project. They get tips, but no specific guidance. As Richard Kitney, one of the advisors to the Imperial team told me, “We don’t tell them what it is that they are going to do, nor do we know ourselves.”

After two weeks of researching and refining their ideas, the team present the various options to their advisors. At Cambridge this takes the form of a ‘Dragon’s Den’ day, with local entrepreneurs taking part as judges and bidding virtual money on the best ideas. However, even with external help, deciding which idea to go with isn’t easy.

“What often happens is you have three good ideas but you can’t come up with a clear design or project, so you start several,” says Gos Micklem, one of the Cambridge team’s advisors, “There then comes a panicky moment when you realise they have to be amalgamated.” Nevertheless, somehow things fall into place and a coherent project emerges.

The advisors nudge the team along the way – what works, what doesn’t – but it’s after the first two weeks that the hard work starts.

Vivian Mullin, a third year biochemistry student and one of the Cambridge team that won the 2009 competition, told me that it was the first time many of them – even the biologists – had ever properly been in a lab. And make no mistake, this is no summer holiday. The teams live and breathe their project 24 hours a day, writing off their entire summer.

“It’s tough,” Gos Micklem says, “Especially as most projects only get as far as the modelling stage and fail in testing. It’s very easy to start being overambitious and then not actually produce something at the end of the summer.”

Micklem says the 2009 Cambridge team’s clearly focused ideas probably contributed to their success last year, the team eventually taking the Grand Prize at the competition.

Success isn’t limited to just the Grand Prize though. There are also individual Track Prizes for different areas, such as, amongst others, Environment, Health or Medicine, Food or Energy. UK teams have done well over the years – Imperial has won the Best Manufacturing Project prize for the last two years, Cambridge picked up the Environment prize as well as the Grand Prize last year and both teams have won for Best New Biobrick Part in the past. There are also a host of other prizes, including best poster and Wiki (an open-access record of the team’s progress and ideas, including spectacularly detailed lab books).

Then there’s the Human Practice Prize, which last year Imperial shared with the team from Paris. This covers an important part of the competition, and synthetic biology as a whole: the ethical, moral and legal implications of what they are doing.

“It’s rooted in the fundamentals of the field,” says Paul Freemont, an advisor on the Imperial team, “In Canada, engineers are given a ring at their graduation made of a bridge that collapsed – a symbol that every engineer has a real responsibility in their job. Synthetic biologists want to engage with this right at the start as they know it will have implications in the future.”

Imperial work with the BIOS Centre at the London School of Economics, who form a key part of the iGEM team projects. Last year the team even went back and redesigned the project based on the outcome of those discussions.

For me, the collaboration with ethicists, designers and other non-biologists is part of the wider interdisciplinary community that makes synthetic biology, and iGEM, so special.

“The whole competition is as a real community effort and a good parallel to the rest of science,” says Micklem. “You have to make your research available and publish it, and through the wikis you can see how other people are doing. It’s an opportunity to interact with others all over the world.”

This is one of the attractions for new teams, particularly those looking to try out synthetic biology for the first time. University of St Andrews, for example, will this year get involved thanks to a Wellcome Trust stipend.

Anne Smith, the lead advisor for the St Andrews team, says it’s a great way to get undergraduates involved in cutting edge research and understanding the real research world with carefully planned out laboratory procedures. “But I also like the idea of interacting with students and seeing what they come up with. I would have loved to do something like this when I was a student!”

“The competition definitely inspired us”, says Mike Davies, a second year engineering student and another member of the 2009 Cambridge team. “I couldn’t have seen myself considering doing research until I did this. But now the thought is there.”

Davies told me the team learnt a lot about the differences between engineers and scientists, especially in the way they are taught to think. As Alan Walbridge, a third year engineer and Davies’ teammate, said to me, “Engineers are taught to decompose things to simple things and build them into something interesting. Biologists are all about actually understanding what happens and wanting it to be really complicated!”

This year the Wellcome Trust has awarded stipends to 6 UK teams entering the 2010 iGEM competition, providing important core funding for teams at the stage where a lack of funds is the primary obstacle to getting a team up and running.

Running an iGEM team is expensive, costing around £5000 per student for living costs over the summer, fees, travel, lab consumables and the like. For many teams this has meant begging for facilities and resources from other departments, other universities and/or looking for sponsorship.

Micklem says the Trust’s stipends will transform the way the UK can compete. And compete they should. Kitney believes the UK has the opportunity to become a world leader in synthetic biology, and the iGEM competition is a way to get people interested and enthusiastic about it, as well as science in general.

“This is the kind of experience that is likely to change your life and your approach to science,” says Kitney. “Very few students who take part don’t get hooked on synthetic biology.”

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust’s iGEM Student Stipends.

Image credit: Gos Micklem

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