Building Life from Basic Blocks Focus of Weekend Event

Oct 12, 2012

Some of the best scientist on the Eastern Seaboard will gather in Pittsburgh this weekend to show off their efforts to build new synthetic organisms.  The “jamboree” is part of the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. 

Penn State Bio Engineer Tom Richard said humans have been doing this type of work since they first bred their best male and female livestock or planted seeds from their best of their harvest.  He said the only difference is we are much better at doing it now.  “Part of that has been a better understanding of microbiology and part of that has been the understanding that we could actually move some of these biological parts into systems and rearrange them in ways that are much more predictable.”

iGEM is the largest synthetic biology competition in the world drawing 190 collegiate teams from more than 30 countries. At the jamboree in Pittsburgh, more than 40 teams and 275 undergraduate students from Canada and the U.S. will share their work with each other.  The competition also has high school and entrepreneur categories.

At the beginning of the summer, the teams are given a kit of standardized DNA parts and then told to make something that can solve a problem of their choosing.  In the past, teams have created organisms that can detect arsenic in water (which could save millions of lives in rural Africa) and a yeast that creates the component of red wine that scientists say helps humans live longer.

The competition was born when engineers at MIT dipped their toes into the world of a biologist.

“What they discovered was that biology was nothing like engineering,” said iGEM Foundation Vice President Megan Lizarazo.  “They were really frustrated that they could not predict, when they put these two pieces of DNA together, what would happen.”

Those engineers then started to use their engineering skills and mind-sets to create the standardized parts that are now used in the competition. 

Competition participants over the years have created new building blocks that are now part of the standard set.  Lizarazo said there are now more that 10,000 standard parts in the set. 

Among those at the event this weekend will be teams from CMU and Penn State.  Approximately 50 students from Pittsburgh area high schools will be attending the event as well in an effort to get ideas for their own high school teams next year.

Local organizers says bio engineering is a growing sector in the region’s economy and they hope the event will help to bring more attention to the resources that are available to new businesses looking to enter into the field.