International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM)

Published on December 18th, 2014 | by Aberdeen iGEM Team 2014

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iGEM: Just Around the Riverbend!

If you’ve seen our two previous instalments in the iGEM series then you know who we are and what iGEM is – great! If you missed it, here’s what you need to know in a nutshell!

The iGEM team in Boston, in front of an American flag.

In Hynes Convention Centre, Boston.

iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) is a synthetic biology competition, run by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in which participating teams from all over the world come up with a problem they want to focus on and work over the summer to address it using synthetic biology tools. The first edition took place in 2003, with 5 teams from top American universities competing against each other; this year marks the 10th anniversary edition, which attracted 245 multidisciplinary teams from all around the world to Hynes Convention Center in Boston, USA to present their work in a form of a poster and scientific talk at the Giant Jamboree — including us!

iGEM projects are subdivided into 15 tracks, depending on the problem the projects tries to tackle, including Energy, Environment, Food and Microfluidics to name just a few. Our team competed within Health and Medicine track, presenting a diagnostic system for detection of Human African Trypanosomiasis which we designed and built ourselves.

It looks like a lemon, it smells like a lemon… but it’s bacteria!

Imagine 2300 science enthusiasts with different areas of expertise gathered in one room, assiduously telling you about what they’ve been up to this summer in the lab. On your right, the Stanford team with their biodegradable drone and Wageningen UR, who engineered bacteria to produce anti-fungals to eliminate microorganisms that cause a disease which kills banana plants. On your left, the Heidelberg team with their project on circularizing peptides and Imperial College London with bacterial membranes for water purification. There is bacteria-producing vegan cheese, fuel, water purification, disease detection and environmental contaminants. Yep, now you’ve got a vague idea of what iGEM poster session was like. The diversity and high standard of science was overwhelming and very humbling — yet so inspiring and fun! Some of the teams really pushed the boundaries, with their creative approach to problems and can-do attitude. You could also admire an art installation, where you could touch a fluorescent jacket sewn from material made entirely by bacteria, or smell a lemon which isn’t really a lemon (just don’t bite it — it’s bacteria!).

Talks given by the teams felt like top-notch performances. Although presenting a talk to a packed auditorium can be a daunting task, presenters made it seem effortless by explaining even the most complex projects in a format that was easy to follow, stimulating further discussion.

In addition to the awesomeness of posters and talks, we participated in a number of special events. There was a talk on biosecurity run by FBI agents, and workshops on modelling biology and bio-design automation.

The team in Boston

Boston is a magical city. Although we spent a majority of our time at the convention centre chatting about science, we got to see and fall in love with picturesque Back Bay and Charles River, Harry-Potter-like Harvard University campus and ultramodern MIT-city. Since we were lucky enough to visit Boston during Halloween, we will remember it as a city with craved pumpkins, cosy bars with pumpkin beer and people who are willing to go the extra mile with their outfits (a woman who dressed as a shower was our personal favourite!).

‘It’s not all about the winning… but it is really’.

Throughout the Jamboree, we had our hands full of work. After a nerve-wracking presentation, judges’ questions and hours spent on discussing our poster with participants and judges, the event culminated with the award ceremony. To start off, medal allocations were announced. At first, bronze – Aberdeen’s not on a list. Then silver – still nothing. Did we not win anything? Or is it possible that… Yes! We burst into laughter and cheer! We scored GOLD! On cloud nine, we listened to Tracks and special award announcements. When our team name appeared on the big screen under Best Health and Medicine project (postgraduate), tears of joy started clouding our eyes — nobody expected that in their wildest dreams! While we were laughing and hugging each other, we almost didn’t hear our team name being called again — this time for Best Measurement Innovation (postgraduate), although when we were accepting the award on stage we were unsure what is was for, because we were so happy about the previous award we missed this part of the announcement!

Aberdeen iGEM trophy award ceremony

‘Striking gold’ at the awards ceremony!

After the awards ceremony, emotionally drained but with a spark in the eye and a smile on our faces, we headed straight to the airport to catch our return flight to the UK. Six hours in the air was a perfect opportunity to reflect on the experience.

Why did we voluntarily choose to spend our summer in the lab?

Science is not all rainbows and butterflies — from the first brainstorming sessions to seemingly endless hours spent in the lab, sometimes including weekends, iGEM was challenging. At times nothing worked; at times we questioned if our design makes sense. We didn’t have holidays. But regardless of the obstacles thrown in our way, we persevered as a team and became better, more rounded scientists and individuals. It was worth every moment, as the effort we put into it was many times received back in our nostalgic experiences, and support for our years ahead as we attempt to form careers out of the mists of university. We gained insight into what it really takes to bring a simple idea into a coherent, working system. Who would have expected at the beginning of the project to see pipetting physicists, programming biologists, or nodding along to ‘Of mice and men’ while extracting bacterial DNA.

Everything in life, including iGEM, comes at a price. But if you ask me, I wouldn’t trade it for all the free time in the world, because what we do really does matter.

And if this sounds like something you would enjoy, why not enrol to represent Aberdeen next year?

In the era when synthetic biology still remains a very controversial topic, iGEM continues to inspire youth to utilize its potential to do good. We would like to thank and congratulate our supervisors, all iGEM 2014 teams, iGEM Headquarters, volunteers and judges — we had a blast!

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