Students plan to devote summer to MIT synthetic biology competition

Studying genetically engineered cells might not be everyone’s ideal summer activity, but a group of Brown students may spend their summer doing just that. John Cumbers GS, a native of Great Britain and graduate student in the Department of Bio-Med, is currently recruiting students to participate in a nine-month research competition in the field of synthetic biology that will end in November.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology concludes with a “jamboree” of scientific presentations. Thirteen teams competed in 2005, but this year over 25 are interested in competing. Previous winners have been published in Nature, a scientific journal.

As of today, Brown’s team is composed of 13 undergraduates and two graduates, all of whom will stay at the University this summer to participate in the research.

Synthetic biology is a new field within the scientific community, and its most prominent collegiate competition, iGEM, only started in 2003.

“Now that we have mapped out the genome, suddenly biology becomes mathematical, and it obtains an aspect of engineering,” Cumbers said.

The goal of the competition is to construct a biological machine to test iGEM’s hypothesis that “Simple biological systems can be built from standard interchangeable parts and operated in living cells.”

One member of the team, Megan Schmidt ’08, described its task as “trying to build a machine, but instead of using nuts and bolts, we use nucleotides and proteins.”

Gary Wessel, professor of biology and iGEM team faculty adviser, described synthetic biology as “making use of the cell to do new activities.”

“It’s creative biology,” he added.

Faculty members will play an integral role in the iGEM team’s research by offering intellectual support and laboratory assistance, Wessel said. He will be working with the team over the summer.

“Our only limitation is creativity,” he said.

The team has already enlisted the support of 14 faculty members from over eight departments. The team’s faculty liaison, Victoria Lattanzi ’07, emphasized the importance of cross-disciplinary research in the project. The team’s 15 students represent nine concentrations, ranging from computational biology to electrical engineering to commerce, organizations and entrepreneurship.

The iGEM team is currently in the process of soliciting financial support. “We are hoping for money from different departments within the University,” Lattanzi said.

Cumbers said he would like to see $40,000 raised for the competition. “Keep in mind that $27,000 of that is going towards student stipends for their summer residence,” he said.

The team plans to financially support eight of its current 15 students over the summer. An application for these eight spots will be formulated by the iGEM team’s faculty board.

The team is also looking for donations from alums and others, Lattanzi said. The squad is also searching for funding from private organizations outside Brown, but members would not disclose the names of any potential sponsors.

Even as they solicit funding, team members are still debating what machine they will attempt to build over the summer. “We have about 10 ideas so far,” Schmidt said.

A few ideas are receiving more consideration than others.

Cumbers specializes in the study of aging. He wants to develop a project in which a cell’s age can be determined by its color. After adding certain genetic sequences, “the cell would emit a different color light each time it divides.”

Lattanzi is interested in a project in which cells harness the production of alkane, “which is a potential energy substitute,” she said.

The team is forming a journal club to narrow down its proposal. “The journal club will discuss previous publications and try to narrow down our project’s focus for this summer,” Schmidt said. “We are not committed to any project at this point,” she added.

Past iGEM projects include E. coli photography, developed by the University of Texas, Austin. In this project, E. coli was engineered to respond to light, enabling researchers to create photographs using bacteria.

Certain ethical questions are attached to the field of synthetic biology, and one position on Brown’s iGEM team will be dedicated solely to studying the ethical implications of its research, Cumbers said.

“We will develop responsible research and be aware of possible consequences,” he added.