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iGEM: thinking big, creativity, community-building and great science!

by Konstantinos Vavitsas

One of the events that mark the synthetic biology calendar every year is the iGEM Giant Jamboree. iGEM stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. Since 2004, this event calls for the participation of students in the field of synthetic biology. The aim of the competition is to educate, share and present ambitious scientific projects through teamwork and collaboration.

I have always believed in the importance of creating a synthetic biology community, introduce new generations of scientists to this discipline, and teach them how to work on all aspects of a project—from conception and design to outreach and societal impact. This is the reason why I have always also considered the notion of a student competition, as the iGEM, a tremendous idea. However, my support till now had been somewhat theoretical, as I had never actively participated to one of these events. This changed this year when I accompanied the University of Copenhagen team ‘CosmoCrops’ to this year’s Giant Jamboree as an instructor.

According to the organizers, this year iGEM hosted “…over 300 international, multidisciplinary teams who are eager to share and celebrate their work”. This means that more than 3000 students (10 students per team, which is usually an underestimation) spent several months thinking about how to make the world a better place through the use of synthetic biology. This was reflected in the crowd of participants that overwhelmed the Hynes Convention Center in Boston from the 27th to the 31st of October.

The whole iGEM experience is unique. However, there are a few aspects that particularly impressed me.

First: thinking big. The teams tried to tackle real-world problems, and they were not afraid to envision change by employing out-of-the-box solutions. The topics ranged from bio-diagnostics and biofuels to climate change and terraforming Mars!

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Picture1: Team banners, an explosion of creativity.

A second point was creativity, especially where outreach was concerned. I am used to down-to-earth, data-driven communication of scientific concepts, hypotheses, and opinions. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised with the use of art, mascots, creative humour, and bright illustrations by the students. Even though I will keep using more laid-back dissemination tools, the competition motivated me to strive for creativity and a more illustrative way to present science.

Pic 1Picture 2: Left: a dinosaur. Center: a tardigrade. Right: Me in a beekeeper’s suit, a courtesy of Wageningen_UR who tries to save bees from their parasites.

Third: community building. At the iGEM, the synbio community gets together in a casual manner and people have the opportunity to meet, create new networks or strengthen the existing ones (for instance, the iGEM local communities continue to meet even after their projects are complete). The participants to the event came from every corner of the world (despite the fact that some geographical areas were more represented than others). I had the impression that whatever the future career of the single person, wherever they will be based, the bonds created at iGEM will last forever. Moreover, the Giant Jamboree featured sessions from the FBI, SynbioBeta, and iGEM alumni that now lead successful synthetic biology companies, giving a practical example of what you could expect after iGEM, and what is our personal responsibility towards biosafety.

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Picture 3: The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), together with F.B.I. (Fighting Bacterial Infections, Team Dundee).

Last but not least, great science. While science is a complicated matter and the experiments not always go the way we had envisaged (some team were either overconfident or did not manage to reach their ambitions), it was heartwarming to see many projects succeed. The best projects even won grand prizes for their revolutionary science. HSi Taiwan won the high school track, by making a device that can sense and indicate the presence of poisonous substances in traditional Chinese medicine. The undergrad team from Imperial College presented a system that can sense differential growth rates of different microbial strains and properly adjust them in a co-culture setting. Finally, LMU-Munich managed to 3D-print living cells, towards the aim of tailor-made organs, a true revolution in personalized medicine.

The iGEM competition is an integral part of the dynamic environment, and the community built around synthetic biology. I am proud to have been part of it this year, and I hope I can see everyone around again in the 2017 Giant Jamboree!

Konstantinos Vavitsas is a PhD student at the Copenhagen Plant Science Centre, University of Copenhagen, and member of the steering committee of EUSynbioS. Find him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.

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