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Imperial pioneers new biological engineering parts

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-The iGEM competition
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By Danielle Reeves
11 August 2006

A team of students from Imperial College London is attempting to be amongst the first in the world to merge engineering concepts with biology to produce genetically engineered machines. The project constitutes Imperial's entry in the 2006 international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition which is running this summer from 1 July for 10 weeks.

Students Christin Sander and Farah Vohra weigh predator cells in the labThe Imperial team, comprising eight undergraduates from engineering and biology, together with their advisors, has devised a project in which bacterial DNA is modified in order to create the worlds first biologically-based stable oscillator within a population of bacterial cells. An oscillator generates a recurring waveform, normally of some variable, such as voltage or the concentration of a substance, plotted against time. The importance of producing a stable oscillator of this type is that oscillators are fundamental building blocks in many different types of systems - both biological and man made. The aim of the overall iGEM project is to create a catalogue of standard biologically based parts, which can then be used to create devices and systems for a range of applications.

The groundbreaking work falls under the banner of synthetic biology; an emerging science which merges engineering approaches with biology. In the long term, synthetic biology could be used to create new materials, new types of sensors, or bio fuels by cell-based processes.

Professor Richard Kitney Opens in new window from Imperials Department of Bioengineering, said: "This research is at the forefront of a new kind of science, which combines an engineering approach with complex biological systems to use cells as manufacturing units. The idea of using biology to build engineering parts, and eventually devices, is truly revolutionary. This could have an enormous impact on the way in which devices and materials are constructed."

Alongside Professor Kitney, the competition project is being carried out under the supervision of Vincent Rouilly and Chueh Loo Poh from Imperials Department of Bioengineering and Professor Paul Freemont Opens in new windowand Dr David Mann Opens in new window from Imperials Divisions of Molecular Biosciences and Cell and Molecular Biology.

Members of the iGem team observe DNA fragments under UV lightThe Imperial students are using two distinct cell populations, which form an oscillating system based on 'predator/prey' dynamics. In this sort of system, there are two distinct populations of cells, one of which produces 'predator' molecules and one of which produces molecular 'prey.' The concentration levels of these two molecules alternately rises and falls, and it is this repeating cycle which creates the oscillation. If successful, they will have created a biological oscillator which can form part of a biologically based device.

Professor Paul Freemont from Imperial's Division of Molecular Biosciences added: "iGEM gives some of our outstanding undergraduate students from the Faculties of Engineering and Natural Sciences the chance to work together in competition with students from other leading international universities. It's a really exciting project as it allows our students to get hands-on experience of research that's never been done before."

Imperial's iGEM team consists of three biologists, three bioengineers, one biochemist and an electrical engineer. They will be competing against 37 other teams from universities around the world, including Harvard and Princeton. The competition will culminate on the weekend of the 3 - 5 November 2006 when the Imperial team travel to MIT to present the results of their work. MIT founded and organise the annual competition. The other British institutions taking part are the University of Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh.