The Future of Synthetic Biology: A Recap of iGEM 2019

After attending the iGEM Giant Jamboree last year and being completely blown away by the projects presented (check out this article or this one), I didn’t think I’d be as astonished this year. I attributed part of the awe I felt over the caliber and quality of the projects to my wide-eyed naiveté, having never attended the event before. The second time around, the “first-time” novelty long worn off, I didn’t expect to feel that same level of amazement.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After three days of impressive presentations, I once again felt that same astonishment as I prepared to watch the presentations of the 6 finalists. With good reason—the projects presented by the six finalists completely blew my mind!

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It Takes a Village: Automating Plasmid Purification for iGEM

Today’s blog is guest-written by Wihan Adi, a Master’s student majoring in physics at Justus-Liebig-University in Giessen and team member of iGEM Marburg. Although his background is in nuclear and particle physics, his research interests shifted toward affordable biosensors for point-of-care cancer detection, which is how he ended up doing microbiology for iGEM.


Back in March when the iGEM season had just started, Maurice, a fellow iGEM Marburg team member, told me that he was exchanging emails with Margaretha Schwartz from Promega. Given my background as a physics student, Promega was not a household name for me at the time. “So, are you interested in automating a plasmid purification protocol?” asked Maurice. He told me that Promega was willing to supply the Wizard® MagneSil® Plasmid Purification System for this purpose; that was another name that added to my confusion.

This year, iGEM Marburg is aiming to establish a fast phototrophic organism as a synthetic biology chassis. For this goal we chose Synechococcus elongatus UTEX 2973, with a reported doubling time of 90 minutes. More specifically, we are creating an easy to use toolbox to empower rapid design testing, including genome engineering tools, self-replicating plasmid systems, natural competence and a Golden Gate-based part library. Our team chose to work on phototrophic organisms because we envision accelerating research in this particular field. (Note: Last year, Marburg’s iGEM project won the Grand Prize!)

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Sci Comm Tips From An iGEM Judge

Formal judgement in any context is nerve-racking. Scientists, familiar with being judged, rely on others to evaluate (and hopefully accept) everything from a PhD thesis defense to grant proposals and peer-reviewed journal article submissions. The frustrating part is not knowing exactly what the judges are looking for. Sure there are requirements and guidelines to follow—but how are the judges going to interpret them? It would be a whole lot easier if we could just peek into their minds. Unfortunately for most, that fantasy isn’t likely to turn into reality.

But if you are part of an iGEM team, today is your lucky day! Our own Preeta Guptan volunteers as a judge for the iGEM competition, and in today’s article you will get her insider’s perspective about what iGEM judges look for. You will also get some tips to help you excel in the iGEM competition—and effectively communicate about science in general.

Preeta is an External Innovation Manager at Promega, which means she seeks out and investigates technology that might be valuable for Promega to license or acquire. The opportunity to scout up-and-coming synthetic biology advances was one reason she wanted to be an iGEM judge, but curiosity was at the core of her decision. Preeta and the other judges bring their unique perspectives and experiences to each iGEM project and team they evaluate. Here are some suggestions from Preeta:

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iGEM Stockholm: Blending Art and Synthetic Biology

On May 13, 2019, twenty-five meters below the streets of Stockholm in a retired nuclear reactor, Nerea Capon and her iGEM team unveiled an artistic fusion of creativity and synthetic biology. The Synthetic Biology Art Exhibition featured works by other iGEM teams and local artists, all presenting their unique reflections on the concepts of synthetic biology. The collection included synthetic skin grown by bacteria, performance art, and even a musical snail that spent the week crawling around a table full of plants.

“They were mind-blowing,” Nerea says a few weeks after the exhibition. “We let them have total freedom to interpret synthetic biology as they would love to, and it was really surprising.” Continue reading “iGEM Stockholm: Blending Art and Synthetic Biology”

Synthetic Biology by the Letters

Synthetic biology has been in the news a lot lately—or maybe it only seems like it because I’m spending a lot of my time thinking about our partnership with the iGEM Foundation, which is dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology. As the 2019 iGEM teams are forming, figuring out what their projects will be and how to fund them, it seemed fitting to share some of these stories.

A, C, T, G…S, P, Z, B?

Researchers recently developed four synthetic nucleotides that, when combined with the four natural nucleotides (A, C, T and G), make up a new eight-letter synthetic system called “hachimoji” DNA. The synthetic nucleotides—S, P, Z and B— function like natural DNA by pairing predictably and evolving. Continue reading “Synthetic Biology by the Letters”

It’s Almost iGEM Season—Help Is On The Way!

The 2019 iGEM Competition is on the horizon and team registration opens this month. We’re excited to partner with the iGEM Foundation again this year and offer our support to the young scientists who participate. If you’re starting an iGEM project, there are going to be things you need along the way. We are pleased to share a number of different ways we can help your iGEM team from now until the Giant Jamboree.

Grant Sponsorship

Tell us about your iGEM project and your team could win a 2019 Promega iGEM Grant Sponsorship. Ten winning teams will each receive $2000 in free Promega products to use for their iGEM projects. Tell us about your project—What problem are you addressing? What is your proposed solution? What challenges does your team face? Last year’s winning teams selected from a wide range of reagents and supplies, including master mix, restriction enzymes, ligase, DNA purification kits, expression systems, DNA ladders and markers, buffers and agarose. Click here to apply! Continue reading “It’s Almost iGEM Season—Help Is On The Way!”

Combatting Gun Violence with Synthetic Biology

Imagine you are a high school student living in a community devastated by gun violence and death. In the U.S., this could be one of many communities, but it happens to be Baltimore which had 301 deaths due to gun violence in 2017 (with a per capita rate well above other large cities). Then imagine you were part of an organization within that community that helped you, along with other students, gain knowledge and skills to come up with a viable solution to the problem using synthetic biology.

Baltimore Bio-Crew at the 2018 iGEM Giant Jamboree

This is exactly how the Baltimore Bio-Crew came up with their iGEM project, Coagulance Rx. The Baltimore Bio-Crew decided to tackle this community issue head-on. One team member, Mercedes Ferandes, reflected, “Living in Baltimore City, I have not only witnessed gun violence in front of me, but have had family members and friends die from it. I wanted to try to decrease the amount of deaths by gun violence using iGEM.”

After some research, they discovered that many of the gun deaths were due to blood loss and could have been prevented. The impoverished neighborhoods where this violence occurs lack the resources to provide timely emergency medical treatment. Many of these deaths can be attributed to delayed arrival of emergency response teams—wait times for an ambulance can be over an hour.

Although there were several contributing factors beyond their control, the team wanted to address this problem by focusing on blood clotting and how it could be helpful as a quick temporary treatment for open wounds. This solution could offer a reliable, cost efficient way to save lives by slowing or stopping blood loss until a victim could get medical attention. The team decided to pursue the use of snake venom after coming across some previous iGEM projects that had used it for clotting. Team member Henry Ryles pointed out that the need for snake venom powerful enough to clot blood quickly led them to choose the venom of the Russell’s Viper
(Daboia russelii).

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RAIN Incubator Turns Students into Scientists

Judy Nguyen wasn’t looking for an adventure as the Head of Scientific Research at a fledgling incubator for students. She just finished her Ph.D. in molecular biology and neuroscience, and was looking for stable work in scientific research or biotechnology. However, when she arrived in Tacoma, Washington, she was disappointed by the opportunities available to her.

“With Puget Sound, in the Pacific Northwest, so outdoorsy…Most of Tacoma is environmental science, which is not my background,” Judy says. “I had a hard time finding anywhere to fit in.”

Judy finally found a position with an engineering company, but she didn’t feel quite at home. One day, her boss sent her out for an external meeting with a professor who had, she was told, “cool ideas.” She was instructed to establish a connection and return with ideas for how her company could collaborate with the “crazy professor.” As it turns out, that “crazy professor” had an idea for an organization to spark a revolution in the life science community around Tacoma.

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How To Make Medicine on Mars

Today NASA’s InSight lander will touch down on Mars. InSight, which launched on May 5, is NASA’s first Mars landing since the Curiosity rover in 2012. The lander will begin a two-year mission to study Mars’ deep interior, gathering data that will help scientists understand the formation of rocky planets, including Earth.

NASA's InSight lander approaching Mars.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While every spacecraft that reaches Mars offers more knowledge of the Red Planet, a lot of the excitement is fueled by hopes that someday these missions will bring humans to Mars and enable us to start colonies there. While this goal seems very distant, tremendous progress is being made. Scientists around the globe are making incremental discoveries that will lead to the advances necessary to make colonization of Mars a reality.

I had the pleasure of meeting one team of scientists doing just this—eight high school students from iGEM Team Navarra BG. I met the team and their advisors at the 2018 iGEM Giant Jamboree, where they presented their synthetic biology project, BioGalaxy, as part of the iGEM competition. The problem they aimed to solve is key to helping humans stay on Mars for an extended period of time—how do you take everything you need when there isn’t enough room on the spacecraft? Continue reading “How To Make Medicine on Mars”

Virtual Reality Is Changing How We Experience Science

The South Pole was exactly as I expected—snowy and barren, apart from the giant research station in front of me. Suddenly, I got a notification in my communication system that there was a strong signal coming from the sky. I looked up and changed the visual display settings of my goggles to find stunning views of the Solar System, all the way past Pluto. My heads-up display told me that I’ve discovered a subatomic particle, called a neutrino, that flies through the fabric of space at nearly the speed of light. I wanted to find the source of this neutrino, so I switched my display to X-ray vision. The signal brightened, and the source was revealed—a massive black hole. I captured as much data as possible so I could report back to the lead scientist on the project. What an exciting afternoon of research!

Okay, I’ve never actually been to the South Pole, but I experienced this event in virtual reality at a conference expo booth for the National Science Foundation. This experience put me in the shoes of an astrophysicist working at the IceCube Neutrino Detection Facility, operated by UW-Madison researchers. As someone who specializes in the life sciences, I had the opportunity to learn more about an area outside my expertise—the fascinating world of particle physics.

VR headsets offer immersive experiences for entertainment, education, training, and more.

Most people think of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in the context of gaming or entertainment. You’ve likely had a casual AR experience if you’ve ever given yourself a flower crown in Snapchat, or hunted for Charmander at your local park with the Pokémon GO app. Yet, as I experienced at a conference several weeks ago, AR and VR can have massive implications for education and training experiences in the sciences. Continue reading “Virtual Reality Is Changing How We Experience Science”