Competing undergraduates from all over the world were waiting in nervous anticipation as the winners were announced on November 7. But this wasn’t a sports competition. It was iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition at MIT.
iGEM is a synthetic biology competition in which teams of undergraduates design, construct, and test new biological systems. Each summer, iGEM teams are sent a library of DNA parts—called BioBricks—from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Like Legos or Tinker Toys, these basic units can be combined in a multitude of ways to produce entirely new biological organisms.
Limited only by their imaginations, these budding synthetic biologists created organisms with useful new properties. For example, over the years, some teams have constructed vaccines, engineered biosensors, or sequestered environmental pollutants. In the process, new BioBricks are created that are added back to the Registry. Thus, new tools and opportunities arise year after year.
Out of 160 teams, ours from the University of Washington won first place. It was the first time ever that an American team won the grand prize.
Our winning project had three objectives.
The first focused on gluten intolerance, which afflicts approximately 1 in 100 people. Currently, an experimental treatment in clinical trials uses an orally administered enzyme called SC-PEP. The problem is that it functions poorly in the acidic conditions found in the stomach. To find a better enzyme that functions optimally at low pH, we searched the literature for organisms that thrive in acidic conditions. We identified an enzyme called Kumamolisin, and using special software called FoldIt, we redesigned it to target gluten. Our team then synthesized several new Kumamolisin variants and found that their best enzyme was over 700 times more efficient at degrading gluten than SC-PEP in acidic conditions. We hope that this new enzyme, which we called “KumaMax,” will someday help treat gluten intolerance.
The second objective was to engineer microorganisms to produce a better biofuel. Fossil fuels are composed of hydrocarbons called alkanes, which are superior to existing biofuels that can cause engine corrosion. Last year, the company LS9 introduced two novel genes into a microbe that caused it to produce a particular alkane. Our team improved on this work by optimizing alkane yields and adding a third gene that allowed for the production of a different alkane. Microorganisms with all three genes produced diesel that is practically identical to what comes out of the pump at the gas station. Though this technology has a long way to go, it has enormous potential.
The third objective was to generate toolkits to make biological systems easier to engineer. Our first toolkit assists others in assembling BioBricks into new combinations, and our second is a set of genes from marine bacteria that create magnets inside of microbes.
There were many worthy projects at iGEM this year. Exploring the technology of cryoprotection, the Yale team engineered a novel antifreeze protein that is normally found in insects. The team from Imperial College London engineered plant hormone-generating microbes that could stimulate plant growth, which could help areas that suffer erosion due to increased desertification.
Building a functioning biological system in the course of a summer is no easy task. Undergraduates are involved at every step of the process and gain invaluable hands-on experience. In addition, the students learn to communicate their science to both scientific and non-scientific audiences. iGEM also requires a rigorous safety review, encouraging students to address the potential real-world consequences of their projects.
The accomplishments at this year’s competition are truly amazing. As undergraduates, they are achieving results that previously required a Ph.D. and several years of experience.
In short, tomorrow’s synthetic biology leaders are competing at iGEM today.