When coal was burned en masse during the Industrial Revolution, people were unaware of the delicate balance of carbon in the atmosphere. When plastics were invented in the 1930s, we could not have anticipated how they would contaminate our oceans.
Here in the 21st century, we have a much better understanding of the natural world. We also have the tools and technology to put people in better balance with the world. Precision technologies, like the synthetic biology solutions developed at the International Genetic Engineering Machine (iGEM) Competition, are helping us solve yesterday’s problems while building a sustainable tomorrow.
The iGEM Competition is almost a rite of passage for young scientists in the field of synthetic biology. The competition was founded in 2003 out of an independent study course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Tom Knight, co-founder of Ginkgo Bioworks, also co-founded the first course. along with iGEM founder Randy Rettberg and synthetic biology leader Drew Endy. Ginkgo co-founders Austin Che, Reshma Shetty, Barry Canton, and Jason Kelly participated in the early years of the course. They entered an iGEM team together in 2006, working on producing a flavor compound in E. coli. Today, many industry leaders in synthetic biology have been forged in the competitive fires of the iGEM crucible.
Since 2003, iGEM has grown into a global event with thousands of participants who come together in Boston for the iGEM Giant Jamboree. This competition showcases the innovations from young synthetic biologists at high-school, undergraduate and overgraduate level which help solve global problems through synthetic biology solutions. Key to this is the use of standard biological parts. These are functional units of DNA, like a gene or a promoter. Parts are added to the iGEM Registry so that teams around the world for years to come can use them to create novel biological solutions. It’s global teamwork.
Building the future with biology
Seeing the impact they can have in enabling the next generation of synthetic biologists, forward-thinking companies are keen to support iGEM teams. Twist Bioscience recognized the immediate benefits they could bring to the participants by partnering their DNA synthesis technology with iGEM. DNA is the foundational element of engineering biology, the “biobytes” which can program a sustainable bioeconomy. Twist have developed a unique DNA synthesis platform on a silicon chip. When CEO Emily Leproust addressed the 2019 Giant Jamboree, she likened DNA to language.
Twist CEO Emily Leproust addresses the next generation of synthetic biologists at the iGEM Giant Jamboree. Her message: The ability to make DNA should never get in the way of the innovators making biological solutions for the world. Photo: iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight.
“Individual letters have very little impact but, when put together in order, they have the power to describe the world around us, bringing knowledge, relationship, and engagement,” she explained. Highlighting the entrepreneurial and world-changing spirit of iGEM, she added “Twist started with a big idea. We can use silicon technology to write DNA. Each day we are producing millions of oligonucleotides and we turn these oligos into thousands of high-grade genes to be used by researchers.”
This year’s teams target pollution
Pollution was one of the common themes of this year’s contest, and there were many standout teams at this year’s iGEM Giant Jamboree working in this area:
- The team from Exeter noted that laundry accounts for 35% of all microplastic pollution in the ocean, largely from our polyester clothing. They set out to make an enzyme-based filter to stop it from reaching the ocean. Their methods involved both rationally designing enzymes and reconstructing ancestral versions of existing enzymes to best engineer a stable, functional protein to incorporate into a filtration system.
- Another big-picture project was aimed at designing microbes to capture carbon and affect local weather. NCHU Taichung in Taiwan were intrigued by a carbon-capture pathway in phytoplankton that makes dimethyl sulfide, which can be transformed into cloud condensation nuclei. They engineered a different dimethyl sulfide pathway into Escherichia coli to do the same thing. Carbon capture alone helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but seeding clouds with the product could also help reflect sunlight, like ice does at the Earth’s polar regions.
- Manchester’s Cutiful team engineered bacteria to produce natural hair dyes that not only color hair, but also help repair it. Traditional hair dyes can contain allergens, and their manufacture is less environmentally friendly than Cutiful’s synthetic biology solution. Their biofriendly hair dye even produces a pleasing citrus or vanilla scent.
- Paris’ Cinergy team wondered what they could do about the 30 billion cigarette butts thrown on the ground in France each year. Each butt takes 10 to 15 years to degrade on its own, but the Paris team found a way to turn them into green electricity. They did this by engineering microbes to break down cellulose acetate — the main ingredient of cigarette butts — into carbohydrates. The carbohydrates could in turn be used by another microbe to make electrons, which were directed to a conducting wire to produce usable electricity.
Beyond iGEM: taking good ideas into the world
Novel ideas developed at iGEM don’t disappear at the end of the project, either. To help retain and build on this global talent, the iGEM foundation established After iGEM.
“There are about 150 relevant synbio-based iGEM co-founders with roots in the competition. These are applied synthetic biology companies focusing on areas like food, agri tech, water and health,” says Will Wright, Director of Entrepreneurship at the iGEM Foundation.
Wright highlights teams that have resulted in startups such as Ginkgo, PvP Biologics, Hyasynth, and Puraffinity, but there are many, many more success stories spinning out of iGEM. After iGEM aims to keep engaging with iGEMers across the world, developing their skills and companies through specialist programs, and helping spread the idea of biological solutions to global problems.
Investing in people is key to achieving this. Engineering biology is not a cheap technology to develop or scale and the field relies on the support of grants and investment that seek to improve our world. Companies like Twist recognize this.
“We never want access to DNA to be a limiting factor to your research,” Leproust said at this year’s Giant Jamboree. “That is why we are proud to have provided every team with 10,000 bases of free DNA this year and to be supporting iGEM with the synthesis of the Registry of Standardized Parts.”
iGEM team members in exchange with competition judges on the main floor or the iGEM Jamboree in Boston, October 2019. Photo: iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight
Fast, inexpensive access to any of the parts in the Registry enables iGEM researchers around the world to work on their innovative projects without spending weeks at a time waiting for DNA parts to be synthesized from scratch.
Global challenges in health, food, and water supply faced by humanity require a global solution. The iGEM Foundation fosters innovation and support to a new generation of synthetic biologists. With support from iGEM alumni and companies like Twist Bioscience, they will change our world for the better.4