What the heck is this iGEM thing?

iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, is an annual synthetic biology competition involving undergraduate university teams from around the world.

Teams spend a year to develop novel projects built around synthetic biology, then present their work to panels of judges at a series of competitions in the fall. Since starting in 2003, iGEM has expanded to encompass over 200 teams from the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

With each team led by undergraduates, iGEM offers students the opportunity to attack practical issues using synthetic biology, thereby connecting the classroom, laboratory, and outside world. iGEM draws together students from diverse fields including biology, engineering, business, and computer science, giving them the foundations they need to change the world through research and industry.

So, what's this “synthetic biology” you keep going on about?

Synthetic biology is the science of modifying lifeforms to do useful things. By taking components from different organisms and combining them with synthetic ones that we engineer, we build novel biological systems to solve pressing problems.

Synthetic biology strives to apply engineering methods to biology, allowing us to build an organism in the same way we build a bridge. Projects undertaken by past iGEM teams include a printer for genetic circuits, a system to detect cancer through epigenetics, and our own 2017 project to turn astronaut waste into plastic.

How long have you guys been doing this whole iGEM deal?

The University of Calgary team has competed in iGEM annually since 2007.

  • in 2010, created a checker for protein misfolding, Gold Medal.
  • in 2011, by creating an organism to help tailings ponds, Best Wiki and Best Experimental Measurement and Best Environmental Project overall.
  • in 2012, expanded on the 2011 project, Best Human Practices award.
  • in 2013, found a method to detect E. coli in cattle, Best Food and Energy Project.
  • in 2014, created a detector for multiple diseases, Gold Medal.
  • in 2017, space-waste management by conversion to plastic, Gold Medal and nomination for Best Manufacturing.
  • in 2018, Chassis for gene therapy, Gold medal, We also built SARA to quickly scan iGEM projects, nominated for Best Software.

So, what do you do other than sit around in lab coats all day?

  • We collaborate with industry to shape our work to attack pressing practical problems. In 2012, we conversed with major energy companies at the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative workshop, where we learned how best to tailor our toxin breakdown system for eventual industry use. In 2013, we toured the Cargill beef processing plant in High River so we could understand applications of our E. coli detection system, and also attended the University of Calgary Veterinary Medicine Beef Cattle Conference where we discussed contamination issues with industry leaders, industry organizations, and academics specializing in this field.
  • In 2012, we contributed to several of the Telus Spark science centre's Adults-Only evening events. We guided people in using bacteria to draw fluorescent messages on agar plates, allowing them to work with the same organisms we use in our lab on a daily basis.
  • In 2013, we traveled to Consort, Alberta, where we helped their high school establish their own iGEM team.
  • We developed the Lab Escape video game in 2012 to demonstrate to the general public the principles underlying our daily activities in the lab. This game was later exhibited at the Telus Spark science centre.
  • In 2012, we gave a TED Talk at the TEDx Calgary conference on iGEM and synthetic biology.
  • When we're not busy with all of the above, we create music videos expressing our undying love for synthetic biology. Our 2011 effort one-upped Katy Parry's Last Friday Night, while in 2012, we channeled our inner Psi to create the best Gangnam Style take-off that the world has ever seen.