The 9 Coolest Student Biology Projects At The 2013 iGEM Competition

We're thinking of our visit to this year's International Genetically Engineered Machines competition as our gold ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. You know, "Come with me, and you'll be in a world of pure imagination." Or something.

Synthetic biology's equivalent to the student robotics championship, iGEM has historically played impresario to the burgeoning field. Using its tools and growing catalogue of genes parts, students compete to create the most useful, most intriguing organisms. This weekend, they showed off bacteria that ride worms, next generation cures for tuberculosis and 243 other projects. Here are our top picks from the finals at MIT. Also, check out our post about the first competition in 2004.

Organofoam

Yes, biodegradable Styrofoam exists, but not without the risk of mold. The iGEM Cornell team created an anti-fungal mechanism to prevent mold from occurring during the production process of biodegradable Styrofoam. The team collaborated with the environmental design company Ecovative Design to improve on their current product for direct application. Their mushroom packaging degrades in the ground after just 1 month; normal Styrofoam can take over 500 years. “Our goal was to make their product better so that it can compete with Styrofoam,” says team member Hannah Ajmani. The team will not only decrease production costs by eliminating contamination, but they also hope to offer Organofoam in a variety of colors, to increase marketability.

Darwin Toolbox

Imagine having a lab in a box. Thanks to iGEM team UCL E, next year you will be able to buy one for $1000, the Darwin Toolbox. The kit contains a PCR machine for copying DNA, a centrifuge that can reach up to 3000 RPM, an electrophoresis gel box for visualizing your data, a USB outlet and even a webcam for the gel box. Although the price is steep, it’s more affordable than buying lab equipment piecemeal. One OpenPCR costs $599. “How much can you do with a PCR machine if you don’t have the other equipment to analyze what you make?” says team member Bethan Wolfenden. Many open source kits available, such as the OpenFuge, often require time and a specific skill set to put together. "Sure it's fun to make your own tools," says team member Philipp Boeing, "but for the majority of our customers, that's not really a solution. They want biotechnology now." “Former scientists, technology enthusiasts, or families – they want to get this for their daughters or their sons to teach them a little bit more about biology and tinker around,” says Wolfenden. At a later date, they hope to include reagents and create modular kits so that you can personalize the box for your individual needs. “There’s a lot of potential to grow this into a more serious toy,” says Boeing.

Detecting Antibiotics In Milk

The iGEM team from Beijing Institute of Technology creates a new antibiotic detection method for milk products. For just $30, you will be able to buy their product to test the safety level of antibiotics in your milk at home. Although antibiotics might not be harmful to our health in small quantities, over time they may lead to antibiotic resistance. It’s as simple as adding milk to the reusable biosensor chip, sliding the chip into the detector and reading the data on the touch screen. The device tests for the antibiotics tetracycline and beta-lactam. They hope to sell the gadget in grocery stores throughout Beijing by next year.

Bee. Coli

A nasty parasite, Nosema ceranae, has caused bee populations to decline globally, a huge problem for pollination and our farming system. The iGEM NYMU Taipei team decided to tackle this epidemic known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Their invention, Bee. coli, is a genetically modified version of E. coli intended to stop CCD. Not only does it protect bees from initial infection, but also in the chance that infection does occur, it acts as a bodyguard and kills the parasite. If this does not work and the infection persists for more than 120 hours, the infection spreads to other bees. In this case, Bee. coli will kill the infected bee to protect the colony. Bee. coli are coated in light-sensitive capsules and activated inside of the dark gut of the bee. The capsules can be fed to the bees in sugar water. But what happens if a butterfly or grasshopper comes along and eats it? Although there are environmental concerns with Bee. coli, the team claims that this is only a model system and they will next experiment with bees’ natural flora.

Biohacking Blue Jeans

The average American owns 3 pairs of blue jeans, but the process of dying jeans blue with indigo is detrimental to the environment. Luckily, the iGEM team from Berkeley has developed an alternative method to produce our favorite pants. “Ninety percent of the indigo produced is used to dye jeans,” says team member Rayma Prathuri. “It seemed natural that if we were working with indigo we could try to revolutionize the dying industry.” Indigo for blue jeans is not only synthesized from oil, but it is naturally insoluble and requires extreme heat and harsh chemicals to produce its soluble counterpart called indican that will stick to cotton. “It’s like trying to dye your clothes with sand,” says team member Thomas Rich. "It needs to be soluable to get deep into the fibers. That’s what indican does.” Although indican is naturally produced in plants, it had not been produced artificially until now. Today marks the one-month anniversary of the team’s novel results – they were able to produce indican in vitro. The team successfully dyed cotton samples using their new methods. Watch video here. Next, they hope to make a DIY kit so that you can biohack your jeans at home.

Colisweeper

Are you addicted to playing Minesweeper? Now there's a biological version. Why bother? Because it's awesome. At least the seven students on the iGEM ETH Zurich team think so. Minesweeper works by uncovering a square that reveals how many mines are near by; none, one, or two. If you pick a square with a mine, the game is over and you start again. Colisweeper plays by the same rules, but instead requires a petri-dish interface and a pipet to make moves. Genetically engineered E. coli colonies contain different concentrations of the signaling molecule acyl-homoserine-lactone (AHL). Non-mines have low AHL levels, where as mines have high AHL levels. The game works by pipetting small amounts of a substrate onto the colonies. If the colony turns yellow, there are no mines around the colony, if pink, there are 2 mines, and if blue, you’ve landed on a mine. “If you hit a mine you must stop the game,” says team member Parvathi Chandran, “And if you don’t stop the game, then you’re cheating!”

Fighting TB With Modern Weapons

iGem Team Paris Bettencourt aims to fight Tuberculosis (TB). Their team of twelve split this ambitious project into 4 parts – Detect, Target, Infiltrate, and Sabotage, but how did they do it? "We are at iGEM, so let's make an E. coli that kills something, " says Matthew Deyell, one of the team members. The Infiltrate project created an E. coli strain designed to kill, kill macrophages that is, where latent TB is harnessed and protected by the host cell immune system. In addition to killing latent TB, the Sabotage project aims to turn off genes that are responsible for muti-drug resistant stains of TB. Using E. coli as a model system for TB, they engineered a bacteriophage that carries silencing RNA into cells that turn off drug resistance. “This model system can apply to a lot of different pharmaceutical applications,” says Aude Bernheim, a member of the team. Other muti-drug-resistant diseases might benefit from phage and silencing RNA technologies, such as MRSA. Working with a designer, they also designed a clever way to detect TB by coughing into a handkerchief. If TB is present, the handkerchief changes color. The application of these technologies is endless, so let’s be on the look out for further research on these modern weapons.

Wormboys

Bacteria are essential to science research, yet they are relatively immobile. Why not give them a lift? "Wormboys is the answer," says iGEM Valencia Biocampus team member Marina Manas. "We present the first artificial synthetic symbiosis with bacteria engineered to ride on worms." The iGEM team created a system in which P. putida bacteria hitch a ride on the mobile worms, C. elegans. The worms eat E. coli that have been modified to promote clumping behavior, causing the worms carrying bacteria to come together like a herd of sheep. In this high concentration, the bacteria are able to perform processes such as bioplastic production.

Taxi. Coli

Drugs should destroy tumors, not the rest of the body. The iGEM team from EPL Lausanne developed a targeted drug delivery model using a biological taxi service to transport drugs from point A to point B. Drug delivery systems that take unnecessary detours and pit stops can cause harmful side effects as well as dilute drug dosages. The all female team linked drug-filled nanoparticles to genetically engineered E. coli, or Taxi. coli, to make drug transport more efficient. Nanoparticles only release the drug when signaled at the final destination. After finalizing this model system with E. coli, they hope to be able to attach drug-filled nanoparticles to immune cells that have a pre-programed GPS to attack target sites.