In the overgraduate division, the grand prize winner was the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, which built a functional prototype of a 3D printer, known as the Biolinker, from cheap DIY, open-source parts. This 3D microbe printer is capable of bioprinting bacteria in shapes based on lines and circles.
Other teams won for their synthetic biology innovations in the field of medicine. The first runner-up in the overgraduate division, BGU Israel, created the Boomerang System,
, while the first runner-up in the undergraduate division, a team from the Czech Republic, created
, the “first clinically relevant tumor mobility test.” All told, there were
at this year’s iGEM event.
What’s making this explosion in popularity for synthetic biology possible, to a large extent, is the growth in standardized, biological parts that are used to make all these innovations. Each team in the iGEM has access to a catalog of more than 20,000 standard biological parts — and they are free to contribute and add their own parts as well. Think of this parts catalog, Rettberg once told the U.S. government, as the equivalent of “the Williams-Sonoma catalog of synthetic biology.”
Just as writers use letters, words, sentences and paragraphs to construct meaning — synthetic biologists can use similar types of building blocks to create meaning at the genetic level. Only in this case, the building blocks include parts such as “Anderson promoters” and “Freiburg TALES” and the final results are “genetically engineered machines” (GEMs) rather than articles or books.
Whereas genetically modified organisms refer to organisms that have been tweaked or manipulated in some way, the GEMs are typically built from scratch to have a specific function. In such a way, Rettberg told The Post, it’s possible to create machines with radically different properties that may not be found in nature. We might even be able to create something as mind-blowing as a new type of cement to build structures on the moon, E. coli that fight obesity or bacteria that eat up oil spills.
All of this tinkering with biology should remind you of something that happened about 40 years ago – the appearance of the personal computer. Back then, people were still questioning the need for a personal computer, and nobody could have predicted the full potential of the Internet. But then along came the Internet browser in the 1990s, and suddenly, everything fell into place.
Flash forward a generation, says Rettberg, and we are starting to see the same thing now with synthetic biology. In fact, Rettberg is an early Internet pioneer who worked in the computer industry for 30 years and helped create the ARPANET — and he sees the parallels now with synthetic biology. “Engineering,” he says, is “the correct background for synthetic biology.”
As Rettberg told me, the field of synthetic biology is fundamentally different from traditional biology. By adding engineering to the mix, you are moving from “opportunity” to “intention,” and that means you can build exactly what you want, when you want, rather than waiting for serendipity to strike. He likens it to creating and cutting the exact 2×4 blocks you need to build a house rather than just pushing a bunch of random rocks together for the foundation.
To illustrate this point, he shared the differences in approaches that some iGEM teams might take to the same problem. For example, consider the problem of oil spills. A team from the Persian Gulf might take one approach to dissolving oil spills using bacteria that are optimized to work in warm weather conditions. However, a team from Canada would approach it from a different perspective, focusing on the need for the genetically engineered bacteria to work in freezing, Arctic-style weather.
For now, of course, it’s still too early to talk about commercialized innovations coming out of iGEM – most of the participating teams at iGEM looked like young science fair contestants complete with their own cardboard posters — but the excitement around the synthetic biology space is palpable. Costumes are a big part of the full iGEM experience. In 2014, a (still unnamed) professor ran around the event dressed as a giant stuffed olive.
Unlike the birth of Silicon Valley, which started in a specific place and a specific milieu, synthetic biology seems to have a much larger global footprint. Of the 280 teams that registered for the iGEM event, 104 were from Asia, 72 from Europe, 20 from Latin America, 82 from North America and two from Africa.
As Rettberg points out, synthetic biology start-ups — especially those launched by students — are not yet attracting a lot of attention from venture capitalists. “We’re kind of an incubator,” he says, meaning that iGEM is a venue for testing out ideas to see what works — and what doesn’t. The synthetic biology projects are more like prototypes and proofs of concept rather than working products. About 160 of the 250 projects will work, but half of these are still way too far off, yielding about 80 projects with true potential. Of these, maybe a dozen end up as PhD research programs, says Rettberg, while another dozen end up as possible companies.
But as synthetic biology continues to move into new areas that directly touch the consumer, that could change. Rettberg says that there are now 25,000 to 28,000 iGEM graduates in a broad base of fields, ready to apply their knowledge of synthetic biology to other problems in the world. It’s still too early to say if any of these iGEM graduates will launch companies that will be dominant in the future, but that’s exactly the same thing they said about the first Internet entrepreneurs a generation ago.