iGEM is an international arena where student teams compete to design and assemble engineered machines using advanced genetic components and technologies.
iGEM spent the summer immersed in the growing field of synthetic biology, creating simple systems from interchangeable parts that operate in living cells. Biology, once thought too complicated to be engineered like a clock, computer or microwave oven, has proven to be open to manipulation at the genetic level. The new creations are engineered from snippets of DNA, the molecules that run living cells.
"It's kind of a cool thing to tell your bacteria how to smell," said team member Veena Venkatachalam, an MIT sophomore majoring in chemistry and physics.
The winning Slovenian team was one of the few to work with mammalian cells. Ljubljana microbiology student Monika Ciglic said that the team chose the more challenging and complicated mammalian cells over bacteria or viruses because of the potential rewards of coming up with a system that could work in the human body.
The first runner-up was a team from the Imperial College in London for its creation of an oscillator that was stable, had a high signal-to-noise ratio and could be easily integrated into other systems.
The second runner-up was the Princeton team for its work on programming mouse embryonic stem cells to differentiate on command. The technique could one day be used to create organs and tissues from stem cells, which have the ability to turn into any part of the body.
As with any technology, there is the danger of misuse. Perceptions of synthetic biology range from excitement to fear and mistrust. Drew Endy, an assistant professor of biological engineering, said that the work is so new, it's bound to scare some people.