iGEM 2017 – live stream

Welcome to BioByDesign’s live stream from the iGEM 2017 Giant Jamboree at the Hynes Convention Centre in Boston, MA. I’m Max Jamilly and I’ll be bringing you updates, photos and videos as the event unfolds over the next four days. Don’t forget to join in the discussion on Twitter @synbiobydesign!

What’s iGEM?

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition is the world’s largest undergraduate bioengineering competition. Founded by Randy Retberg in 2003 as an undergraduate design course at MIT, the iGEM Foundation now coordinates synthetic biology education and events all over the world, as well as curating the iGEM Registry of Standard Biological Parts, a collection of modular genetic elements which can be combined to build synthetic circuits.

Every summer, teams all over the world – mostly undergraduates, some high-school students and postgraduates – compete to design a new biological system using synthetic biology. The Giant Jamboree, held annually in Boston, brings these teams together to share and present their work. Last year’s competition involved 5,000 participants from 300 teams across 42 countries.

Day 3 – summary

The final day of student presentations has come to a close – and what a day it was. From Cas13a-based diagnostic devices that cost less than a dollar, to self-healing martian materials and wifi-connected crop-boosting hardware, it’s amazing how much these teams have achieved in just a few months.

Join me tomorrow for the most exciting event of all: the awards ceremony!

Today’s top picks:

  • Local superstars MIT used the home-grown CRISPR-family enzyme dCas13a for their Splice and Dice project. The CRISPR-family enzyme developed in the Feng Zhang lab could be used to control alternative splicing in mammalian cells.
  • Standing room only at MIT’s Cas13a presentation
  • Stanford-Brown iGEM, in collaboration with the NASA-Ames synbio lab, presented three ingenious biological solutions to the lack of raw materials on Mars. They developed rubber-making bacteria, a bacterial battery and a self-healing material. Maybe space colonisation isn’t such a distant prospect, after all.
  • Postgraduate team CascAID from Munich TUM/LMU presented a low-cost and highly portable diagnostic device to distinguish bacterial and viral infections in the clinic, with the goal of preventing overprescription of antibiotics.
  • Freiburg’s CARTEL second-generation CAR T-cells add an extra layer of specificity to killer immune cells, engineered using CRISPR to target tumours in the body.

In other news:

  • Watch out for budding entrepreneurs from Cornell, who have prototyped hardware that releases reactive oxygen species to promote crop growth.
  • Turkey’s team, absent from the competition because they weren’t granted US visas, received a standing ovation after Munich’s team captain gave them a shoutout: “Because politics should never, ever, get in the way of scientific collaboration.”
  • William So, a Policy and Program Specialist from the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, gave a talk on “Safeguarding science and the future”. Secret agents can wear labcoats too.
  • Preying mantis spotted at the poster session

Day 2 – summary

It’s been another intense and stimulating day at the Giant Jamboree. The excitement is building as more and more teams deliver their presentations and favourites begin to emerge in the competition for Monday’s grand prize. But with some of the biggest names still to present, there is everything to play for. The halls and corridors are packed with teams feverishly rehearsing their pitches, discussing strategy and analysing their competitors. Read on to learn about today’s hottest teams.

iGEM is strikingly diverse. I don’t only mean its international reach: more than the languages you hear or the flags you see flying, the amazing thing at the Jamboree is the huge diversity of ideas being presented. The design principles of synthetic biology have had a broad and lasting impact on dozens of separate disciplines. Academia could learn a lot from these vibrant, imaginative, multidisciplinary teams. If you’re ever feeling glum about the future of life sciences, come to iGEM.

Today’s top picks:

  • The University of Oxford’s See Cruzi team gave a very accomplished presentation to a packed audience this morning. They have developed a low-cost diagnostic for Chagas disease using blood clotting.
    Oxford effortlessly responding to the judges’ questions

    Oxford and their poster
  • A small army of scientists from Uppsala University used E. coli to make crocin, a key component of the spice saffron. Saffron, which comes from the stigmata of crocus flowers, is more expensive by weight than gold. It took a team of twenty to integrate the entire biosynthetic pathway.
  • Blueprint 361 from the University of Warwick engineered light-activated bacteria which synthesise a biocompatible surface to help heal broken bones. Here’s a preview from the video interview coming soon!
  • Austria’s Team NAWI-Graz presented their E. coli-powered robot. Yes, really: bacteria sense temperature and pH and produce a fluroescent signal which guides a robot through its environment.

    NAWI-Graz’s bacteria-controlled robot
  • In other news: Hats off to UPS-INSA from Toulouse, France for wearing stunning berets all day long; Pasteur Paris showcased a beautiful bacteria air filter that wouldn’t look out of place in a modern living room; and Team Vilnius developed an outreach tool with Google Cardboard.
  • Aether by Pasteur Paris
    I don’t know what was going on here.


Day 1 – summary

iGEM 2017 has begun! Today 310 teams from all over the world descended upon downtown Boston for first day of the Giant Jamboree. There are high-schoolers, undergrads, postgrads, teachers, judges and entrepreneurs, all buzzing with excitement and ready to share their ideas. As a first-time visitor to iGEM, I’ve been amazed by the creativity, ingenuity and passion for synbio in everyone that I meet. This is not your typical science fair.

After an opening ceremony, teams spent the day presenting their projects in twenty-minute pitches, followed by questions from the judges and audience. Every team displays a poster in an enormous hall and, nearby, many teams have set up practical demonstrations of their projects. There’s a fascinating variety of concepts and designs: 3D printers, fully-functioning bioreactors, wastewater filters, robots navigating mazes powered by bacteria. It feels more like a carnival than a conference!

Today’s top picks:

  • ETH Zurich has developed an impressive strategy for tumour treatment using a strain of E. coli which localises to cancer tissue and then releases an MRI contrast agent and anti-tumour toxin. A clever synthetic circuit involving two specificity checkpoints ensures that the bacteria only kill malignant tissues. Doctors can use focussed ultrasound to activate the bacteria and deliver a second dose of tumour-killing drugs.

    ETH Zurich’s iGEM 2017 poster for cancer-targeting E. coli
  • CLSB-UK, a team from City of London School for Boys, is the first secondary-school team from the UK to enter iGEM. They set the bar extremely high with their sequence-specific miRNA-based sensors for non-small cell lung cancer. They collaborated with the University of Oxford to develop RNA toehold switches which turn on a glowing molecule like mCherry when activated. As if that weren’t cool enough, they built an app for Amazon Alexa and Google Echo which lets you order biological parts hands-free: OK Google, order me the hU6 promoter. Making North London proud!
  • UCL, another team from London, built a bio-inspired version of Dance Dance Revolution using the letters ACGT and installed it in the Science Museum. Oh, and they also built a photoactivatable dead-Cas9 circuit and a cyanobacterial lightbulb.
  • Mantis, from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, is a low-cost 3D-printed portable diagnostic device for infectious diseases like Zika and sleeping sickness. Coming soon to a field hospital near you.

      You guessed it – it’s a preying mantis
  • And there’s more: Pili from the University of Exeter have a neat solution for purifying heavy metals from mining wastewater using bacterial biofilms. Parabase from NCTU Formosa, Singapore trained a machine-learning model to rank and predict antifungal compounds. Light Harvester from East China University of Science and Technology developed a hydrogen-producing bioreactor with rhodobacter. If only every bioreactor looked like a spaceship…
    A portable solution for heavy-metal purification using metal-binding proteins expressed on bacterial pili
    East China University of Science and Technology developed a hydrogen-producing bioreactor
    Parabase from NCTU Formosa presenting their poster to the judges

    See you tomorrow!

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