U-Va. students are using DNA to try to make a 'new machine'

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Creating an original organism required no bolt of lightning for a team of University of Virginia students. But it did take buckets of ice, vials of bacteria and a FedEx delivery.

Nestled in the package were bits of DNA, whipped up in California and ordered online. When they arrived at a lab crowded with flasks, pipettes and aging equipment held together with pieces of red tape, the students plunged vials of E. coli bacteria into the ice-filled buckets. Then they heated the vials up and cooled them down again.

During that process, the tiny bacterial cells cracked open just enough to let the DNA inside, and a new life form was born: an army of tiny arsenic-absorbers, offering the possibility of cheaper, easier ways to clean up contaminated water.

"We're kind of making a new machine," said Dan Tarjan, a senior majoring in biology, as he returned to the lab one morning last week, croissant in hand.

Building microscopic critters via genetic tinkering was once the stuff of science fiction -- and just a generation ago, it was confined to the world's most sophisticated laboratories. But with more powerful computers and cheaper equipment, it is within reach of students at high schools, community colleges and universities, hundreds of whom are competing this year to create the coolest new organism on the planet.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, which will be held Halloween weekend at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is built on the premise that life can be broken down into a warehouse of off-the-shelf, interchangeable parts and reassembled into creatures that have never existed.

U-Va.'s invention, dubbed an arsenic sponge by its creators, will vie for the grand prize -- an oversized silver Lego block -- with offerings from 102 other teams, including a bacteria-powered battery (City College of San Francisco) and an anti-allergy drug made with a gene found in tick saliva and bacteria that live in human noses (Brown University).

Adherents call this kind of science synthetic biology. Critics call it scary.

Synthetic biology is something like the genetic engineering that has been making headlines for years -- think Flavr Savr tomatoes, engineered for longer shelf life, or glowing monkeys, altered with a jellyfish gene.

But two things set it apart: The DNA building blocks don't have to come from nature; they can be designed and created in a lab, a process that's becoming faster and cheaper. And there's the idea that life, like cars or computers, can be designed and built from standardized parts that behave predictably.

At the heart of the competition is MIT's Registry of Standard Biological Parts, founded in 2003 as a physical repository and online catalogue of DNA pieces whose function and behavior have been defined. Called BioBricks, these are the building blocks that students use, Lego-like, to build new organisms.

Students are constantly designing new BioBricks, such as the DNA that arrived at U-Va.'s lab last month, a tweaked version of a gene that occurs naturally in plants. Creating them is one of the criteria by which the teams are judged. Last year, teams added 1,300 parts, bringing the number of BioBricks to about 3,350.

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