iGEM: Building Living Machines

Life forms are often compared to machines, whether you are referring to a single cell or a complex organism. This concept is the basis for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition. Each year, high school and university students around the world assemble teams that create genetically engineered systems. In addition to the building work, teams document their process and progress through wikis that are assessed by judges at the end of the competition.

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Some members of iGEM 2016 Team Duesseldorf.

In order to synthesize these living machines, iGEM teams use standard biological parts called biobricks—each biobrick is a sequence of DNA encoding a particular biological function. Teams receive a kit of standard biobricks and work over the summer to build and test biological systems in living cells. These basic units are put together to make more complex parts which can then be grouped together to make “devices” that can function within living cells.

Furthermore, any new biobricks that are created by teams can become part of the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. In addition to iGEM teams, other researchers are encouraged to submit biological parts they have developed. This collection of genetic parts is available for use by future iGEM teams or academic labs (through the Labs Program) to build synthetic biological devices and systems. The goal is to keep the Registry current and continually expand its offerings for the synthetic biology community.

Sponsorship is essential for iGEM teams to sustain their projects over the course of the competition. This aspect of iGEM compels teams to develop a network of academic and industrial contacts in order to obtain funding, materials, and expertise. Although daunting, gaining the skill set necessary to form these partnerships is crucial for the continued success of these aspiring scientists. Below is a summary of a few 2016 iGEM projects and how Promega branches are sponsoring these local iGEM teams.

Promega GmbH is supporting four German teams, Duesseldorf, Munich, Hannover and Tuebingen, and Promega BNL is collaborating with the University of Eindhoven, Netherlands team (clicking on the team name will take you to their iGEM wiki). Along with providing different kits and discounts on enzymes, Promega GmbH supported Team Duesseldorf with with lab know-how, which was especially helpful according to team member Julia Kapr.

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Julia Goetsch, from Promega GmbH, demonstrating the use of VacMan® to Alina Kuklinski, a member of Team Duesseldorf.

An important value of iGEM is to create projects that make a positive contribution to a team’s local community or have a global impact. Teams are encouraged to integrate ethics, sustainability, social justice and education into their project, which requires performing risk assessment, community outreach and even political action.

Although most students have an academic focus in STEM fields, many teams also include individuals studying business, fine arts and humanities in order to effectively manage the project and navigate the multidisciplinary nature of the competition. Another important aspect of the project is that teams must promote their research and obtain funding through sponsorships.

“We not only learned how to work efficient[ly] in the lab, but also gained skills in fundraising, organization, communication and made essential industrial and university contacts, like with Promega.”
Julia Kapr, Team Duesseldorf

After looking through the iGEM wikis of these teams and past award-winners, it is apparent that this competition imparts significant scientific and societal values to its participants. These students are learning how to collaborate within a scientific community, while also contributing to scientific endeavors beyond the competition. In addition, the work that goes into completing an iGEM project is guided by the desire to do good for the local or global community. Prizes will be awarded at the Giant Jamboree at the end of October in Boston. Good luck to all of the teams!

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Darcia is a Science Writer at Promega. She earned her BS in Secondary Education at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, with minors in Biology and Spanish, and her MS in Biotechnology at the University of Wisconsin Madison. She is passionate about sharing scientific knowledge with all audiences, including her family and friends—whether they have solicited the lesson or not! In her free time, Darcia enjoys playing volleyball, eating delicious food and cheering for the Chicago Cubs.

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