U of T news
  • Follow U of T News

Synthetic biology jamboree comes to U of T

International Genetically Engineered Machine conference

After a long summer over centrifuges and pipettes, a group of University of Toronto students are ready to pit their genetic know-how against 50 teams from universities across North America.

At the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, hosted at U of T from Oct. 4 to 6, teams will be presenting the most innovative ideas in one of science’s newest fields: synthetic biology.

Synthetic biologists create and recombine DNA fragments to build new working biological systems in living cells, ideally causing organisms to respond in desired ways. Results can be used to find new solutions for issues in fields from health care to the environment.

Teams choose their own projects and may use sets of standard DNA components provided by iGEM or develop their own. In previous years, teams have worked on projects such as the Arsenic Biotector, which can help detect arsenic contamination in water.

This year, the 15 members of the U of T team focused on isolating the genetic code within E. coli that allows the bacteria to use proteins to form protective biofilms by sticking to each other, and surfaces, when stressed.

“Biofilms are relevant to health care as they can form inside things like catheters, blocking them and rendering them useless,” says Boris Dyakov, the team’s lab manager and a third-year biology specialist in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “Most research around biofilms is about removal but we spent the summer trying to make them!”

Sergio Peisajovich, an assistant professor in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology and an iGEM organizer, says the competition has dual purpose.

“Teams explore new ideas and are also asked to submit any DNA developed as part of their project to iGEM’s Registry of Standard Biological Parts,” he says. “Synthetic biology is a new field, and these teams are essentially contributing building blocks to increase our overall knowledge but also our capability to implement that knowledge.”

Teams are judged based on the novelty, quality and social utility of their ideas, as well as how much of the original idea was implemented. Teams are also required to evaluate any potential problems or ethical issues that could result, something Peisajovich says is vital to consider as the synthetic biology field develops.

“One of the most interesting aspects of iGEM is that the ideas come from students,” Peisajovich says. “This student-driven philosophy is unusual in science, but you can see from the projects what unique and creative ideas result from it.”

Seemi Qaiser, a second-year molecular genetics student who is also studying global health and psychology, admits that the learning curve was steep.

“I was practicing my molecular biology skills, learning new techniques and running actual experiments at the same time,” says Qaiser (pictured right). “But seeing everything come together for a great project under the team leaders has been amazing.”

iGEM began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) during a summer course where students designed blinking cells. This year, more than 200 teams will be competing world-wide and regional winners will proceed to the World Championship in Cambridge, Massachusetts in November.