In the corner of a cavernous convention hall, the FBI hands out business cards. Nearby, someone is tested for Zika virus and a six-foot praying mantis weaves between the tables. High-school students are explaining genome editing to college graduates and Australians are teaching Austrians about a tiny robot powered by E. coli.
It could only be iGEM.
Last month, I swapped my microscope for a microphone and went to Boston, USA to report on the world’s largest student synthetic biology competition. Founded by Randy Retberg in 2003 as an undergraduate design course at MIT, the iGEM (“International Genetically Engineered Machines”) foundation coordinates synthetic biology education and events all over the world and also curates the iGEM Registry of Standard Biological Parts, a collection of modular genetic elements which can be combined to build synthetic circuits.
Every summer, teams from all over the world – mostly undergraduates, some high-school students and graduates – compete to design a new biological system using synthetic biology. The Giant Jamboree, held annually in Boston each autumn, brings all these teams together to share and present their work. This year’s competition involved 5,000 participants from 520 teams across 42 countries.
I’ll be honest: before I arrived at iGEM, synbio and I were going through a rough patch. Working at a lab bench is a challenging pursuit and, after the initial wonder and excitement wear off, completing a PhD requires a lot of ingenuity. Biological systems cannot be engineered as easily as the textbooks suggest. During late nights at the lab, I sometimes wondered whether synbio could ever live up to the hype.
Visiting iGEM renewed my passion for synbio. Chatting to competitors, flush with pride about their projects, bursting with detailed knowledge about their systems, models, hardware and designs, I rediscovered my own love for the subject. Worries began to fade. It’s true that engineering life is no easy task. It’s true that the comparison of gene circuits to electrical circuits is, at best, a limited analogy (although a useful one). But synthetic biology is more than the sum of its parts. iGEM reminded me that synthetic biology is a philosophy, a modern way of approaching biology. Living organisms are not simply something to be studied with curiosity but probed, modified, hacked. If high-school and undergraduate students can take living organisms and reprogram them in a few months, then the ideas underlying synthetic biology must be very powerful indeed.
iGEM does not only create novel ideas: it creates scientists. Camillo, a master’s student at UCL, told me that the experience of building a lab from scratch and producing results was a huge motivation to pursue a PhD. His colleagues agreed: they said that sharing their research made even the frustrations of the summer seem like a useful lesson in resilience. A sixth-form student at City of London School for Boys was worried about the competition for jobs in academic science but discovered, through iGEM, that industry offered a wealth of opportunities for scientists, too.
Many of the students whom I met were interested in the Synthetic Biology Centre for Doctoral Training, the synbio PhD programme run jointly by Bristol, Oxford and Warwick universities. Their iGEM projects had shown them that academic research is exhilarating, liberating, risky – quite unlike their undergraduate studies – and left them passionate to learn more.
It may be an almost impossible feat to solve a real-world problem using synthetic biology in just one summer, but iGEM has had its share of entrepreneurial success stories. BentoLab, a startup founded by UCL’s team in 2013, launched an incredibly successful crowdfunding project for their benchtop molecular-biology kit. Imperial’s 2013 team, Customem, has been counted among Europe’s most exciting climate start-ups. And Ginkgo Bioworks, a spin-off from MIT’s project in 2006, just raised a cool $257 million in their series D funding round.
As I turned my back on the hundreds of posters and left that cavernous hall for the last time, I knew that the future of synbio held great promise.