Students combine biology and engineering in the race to produce first genetically engineered machines<em> - News</em>
By Danielle Reeves
8 November 2006
A team of undergraduate students from Imperial College London has successfully beaten off competition from Cambridge, MIT, Harvard, Princeton and other leading universities from America and around the world, in a groundbreaking competition to create the world’s first genetically engineered machines.
The international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition, organised by MIT, saw 37 student teams from around the world carrying out extended summer research projects in the emerging, leading-edge field of synthetic biology. This combines engineering techniques with biology in order to use cells as manufacturing units to build engineering parts. Over the last weekend over 300 competitors attended the iGEM Jamboree at MIT where students presented the results of their work.
Imperial's iGEM competitors gained first prizes for best documentation for their project website, and best measurement and part characterisation. The Imperial team came in second place overall with its design, above teams from all the leading American universities.
Professor Richard Kitney , from Imperial's Department of Bioengineering, one of the College's iGEM team organisers, commented: "To come second overall in our first year of entering the competition is a truly outstanding achievement by our undergraduate team."
Synthetic biology is very much in its infancy, but it is a field which promises to revolutionise engineering and biotechnology worldwide, explains Professor Kitney. "This iGEM competition is really unique as it allows teams of young, upcoming scientists to carry out research at the forefront of a cutting edge new area of science. Although in its early stages, this new way of combining biology with engineering could have a profound effect on materials science, fuel cell technology and medical research in the coming years, and I’m delighted that Imperial's researchers and students are in the thick of it from the start."
Imperial's iGEM team of eight undergraduates set out to modify bacterial DNA in order to create the world's first biologically-based stable oscillator within a population of bacterial cells. An oscillator is a fundamental building block in many different types of systems - both biological and man made – where energy moves back and forth between two forms. The most common example of an oscillator is a clock pendulum, where energy alternates between movement energy when it is swinging, and potential energy when it is at the end of its travel and ready to fall.
The Imperial team planned to create their oscillator 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.
Professor Paul Freemont from Imperial's Division of Molecular Biosciences who also supervised the iGEM team, said: "Manipulating bacterial DNA to build an oscillator which could be used in a variety of mechanical systems was an ambitious and challenging project taken on by our students, and I’m excited by their results which show that this kind of breakthrough technology is close to being realised."
Professor Freemont admits that although synthetic biology is an exciting new field which could potentially provide solutions to some of the biggest issues facing science in the 21st century, there are ethical debates to be had about its development. "This is a key new field, but we need to be aware of the possible implications of developing this kind of technology that could lead to scientists synthesizing DNA for any purpose they choose. There are huge benefits to be gained from synthetic biology such as the development of alternative fuel sources and extremely accurate sensors for use in medical technologies. It’s important that we investigate these whilst encouraging debate about the wider issues involved."
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