A look into U of T’s synthetic biology club

You’re in the kitchen washing dishes, and you notice a leak in your drainpipe. Expecting guests in 10 minutes and with no time to call a plumber, you reach for a handy bottle of PicoPlumber bacteria mix and pour it down the drain. Why, you ask? Simple: these are not your ordinary bacteria; they have been genetically programmed to clog leaky pipes. These bacteria swim down your drainpipe and localize at the rupture; they are able to sense each other’s presence, and when a critical mass of them accumulates, they all rupture and release a bio-glue that quickly seals the crack and stops the dripping, just in time for your guests’ arrival.

Sound cool? Undergrads at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland sure think so; they came up with it. Projects like these are being brought to life by undergrads all around the world, thanks to an organization called iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines). Every November since 2005, iGEM has been hosting an international competition (or “Jamboree” as it’s called) at MIT that allows students to showcase their genetic engineering (or “synthetic biology” as it’s called when applied to entire cells) projects to the world. This year, over 200 schools took part in the competition, with projects ranging from synthetic blood made from E. Coli to bacterial factories that can degrade toxic chemicals to engineered yeast that can be used to bake vitamin A-infused bread. This year’s winning team, from Washington U., devised a clever way to use bacteria for making enzymes that break down gluten, thus giving hope to gluten intolerant people everywhere.

“There are so many crazy ideas out there,” says Kenny Zhan, former president of iGEM Toronto, a U of T club built around the iGEM competition. “As long as we have imaginative, creative people, I don’t think there are any limits to iGEM.”

Kenny was part of a team of 7 other U of T undergrads that worked together over the summer to bring their very own synthetic biology project to life. The U of T team tried to design an E. Coli bacterium whose genes could be controlled with magnets. The idea of using magnets to control cells, in fact, comes from nature, where you can find a certain class of bacteria, called “magnetotactic” bacteria, which have internal compasses made from a mineral called magnetite that allows them to align with the Earth’s magnetic field. Installing the right genetic circuitry into the E. Coli cells could enable the creation of a genetic switch, essentially a way of regulating gene expression via magnetic stimuli.

“We were really ambitious,” Kenny says, “we wanted to make a larger toolbox for biologists to play with.”

Not only biologists are interested in synthetic biology, the field is rife with collaborations between chemists, engineers, physicists, computer scientists, and even artists.

“At the competition we even had a NASA guy come by and he actually really liked the way we engineered things,” says Kenny.

iGEM Toronto is a fairly new club to U of T, but it’s growing and always looking for membership.

“If you have an intrinsic interest in biology or engineering, I absolutely encourage you to come out. All we’re really looking for are people with an open mind and willing to learn,” says Nicole Cyhelka, third-year chemical engineering student and current president of the club.

She’s sitting with me in a fairly small room brimming with test-tubes, pipettes, and bottles of chemicals: the home of iGEM Toronto, a biochemistry lab in the Medical Sciences building converted into a sanctum of synthetic biology. The club takes on new members in the fall and gives them the chance to participate in the Design Competition, a contest held by the club that allows teams of members to plan out their own engineering projects. The best of these is then chosen as the goal, and a smaller subset of members (designated the “wet-lab team”) go on to turn the blueprint to reality, working nearly full-time over the summer in preparation for the Jamboree.

“They were almost completely autonomous in their planning and experiments,” says Dr. Boris Steipe, a U of T biochemistry professor and faculty supervisor of the club. “And given that, I think they got quite far.”

The idea of engineering life forms to do our bidding has been at the heart of science fiction for decades: from modifying humans to blend in with the Na’vi in Avatar, to the creation of clone troopers to defend the reign of the Galactic Republic in Star Wars. We have even seen some of these crazy notions affect our everyday lives in the form of genetically engineered crops that resist insects, and transgenic cattle that produce human enzymes in their milk. By ushering in new genetic systems built from the ground up, with genes being manipulated as easily as Lego pieces, the emerging new field of synthetic biology is about to turn all those ideas on their head. And iGEM sits right in the middle of it all.

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