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What is iGEM and Synthetic Biology?

Friday, 15 September 2017

This year, for the second time, CLS is entering iGEM - the synthetic biology competition, following last year’s success.

But what is iGEM and what is it all about? This years' team have put together a comprehensive guide to what they have spent their summer holidays working on. 

"Synthetic biology is an emerging area of research that can broadly be described as the design and construction of novel artificial biological pathways, organisms or devices, or the redesign of existing natural biological systems." UK Royal Society.

What is iGEM?

iGEM is a competition held every year with teams competing from all over the world. Specifically, it is a synthetic biology competition aimed at undergraduate university students and graduates but most importantly for us, high school teams as well. The teams usually start at the end of the last academic year and work all summer long to create and test their genetically engineered systems using standard biological parts called BioBricks. It's a bit like building a structure out of LEGO - you either use the standard parts other teams have created, or you can invent your own parts and use them. That new part you have made will then be available for all future teams to use. The different parts, in practice, are different aspects of a genetic circuit - genes and sections around them which control how the genes are expressed.

iGEM teams spend time both inside and outside the laboratory, not only putting into practice their lab skills but also engaging with the wider world under what is called Human practices. All this leads to the creation of sophisticated projects that aim to combine both creativity and science, hopefully resulting in a positive contribution to the global community.

What does iGEM want teams to accomplish?

iGEM focuses on the fact that for the project to be a success many different disciplines must come together. One would think that the competition might be specific to biology or engineering disciplines, but for a team to be successful it will more often than not have students from a very wide range of fields, for example computer design, physics, art, mathematics and social media. For example, the system must be modelled on a computer to check that it works, before carrying out extensive practical work - hence the need for mathematicians and computer scientists.

Furthermore, iGEM is all about solving real world problems using synthetic biology - and to solve a real world problem you have to engage with the world. You need to find out about the issue, how the problem would ideally be resolved and explain your idea to others and get their feedback. Here comes the need for people whose expertise may lie in the arts.

 iGEM lays out the skills it wants to see being displayed by each team including project planning and administration, fundraising, teamwork, international networking, responsible science and engineering, etc.

What is synthetic biology used for?

Synthetic biology can be used to solve real world problems - from getting rid of the rubbish filling our landfill sites to curing cancer which is one of the leading causes of death in MEDCs.

In medicine, the synthetic biology community is pushing the boundaries, one example being the design of microbes that will seek and destroy tumours in the body before self-destructing. It can also help us to better understand flu strains and thus create vaccines.  Synthetic biology can also help solve environmental problems too. For example, we are able to create organisms with the ability to break down toxic chemicals in water or soil that would not otherwise decompose.  Synthetic biology can even help us feed the world, shown by researchers who are working to build a process that will allow plants to fix nitrogen which, if successful, would mean farmers will no longer require fertilizer for their crops.

If you’re interested in all the things synthetic biology can do but aren’t a fan of long words on Wikipedia pages like “Ribosome binding site” or “inducible promoter”, just visit the iGEM website and look through the wiki pages created by past teams. 

Example of a winning high school team?

In the 2015 iGEM competition, the winning high school was TAS Tapei. Their project's aim was to prevent tissue damage from chronic inflammation by limiting the activity of a protein (Granzyme B (GzmB)) outside cells, without affecting its essential work inside cells. They designed and constructed a device encoding an inhibitor for the protein which worked outside of cells.

It was not only their scientific ideas that won them the competition but also their wiki which each team must complete. A team’s wiki page contains essential information about what your team did and how they did it, both informative and interactive. When looking at their human practices page they say, “All of the efforts we make in the laboratory are potentially useless. In an age where there is so much distrust and misinformation about scientific research, we must double our efforts to educate, collaborate and listen”. This team reached out to many different members of the scientific world to gain expert opinions on their project, both positive and critical, and they didn’t stop there! They also set up learning days, camps and conferences to try and inform younger people about the importance of synthetic biology. This clearly shows that to do well in the competition it requires all aspects of the scientific and social world to fall together perfectly.

This year our CLS Team has a new iGEM project involved in diagnosing cancers at an early, curable stage where they are not normally detectable. Come back next week to find out more.

Synthetic biology can be used to solve real world problems.
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