The 2006 iGEM Jamboree (International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) happened at the start of this month. This is a synthetic biology ‘competition’ where teams of talented undergraduates from around the world engineer an organism for a specific purpose … like E. coli that produce mint or banana smell, or form simple logic gates the could potentially be used to make a ‘biological computer’.
They are encouraged to use BioBricks from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, which at the moment is essentially comprised of series many well-characterized DNA constructs (promoters, repressors, selection markers, lots of fluorescence protein coding sequences, etc) with standardized restriction site that can be mixed and matched to produce new and interesting behaviours in bacteria, yeast or mammalian cells. BioBricks are sent out to teams in in 96-well format, so everyone has a good basic set of starting components.
Videos of the student presentations have finally turned up on Google Video. (Unfortunately, the videos only show the speakers, not the slides for the presentation … which makes some parts pretty hard to follow).
I watched the presentation by the University of Arizona team. They printed bacteria onto paper using a stock-standard inkjet printer, with the ink simply removed from the cartridges and replaced with a solution of bacteria. They could then tranfer this to agar plates to grow in whatever pattern they printed. Very simple, but inkjet hardware hacking crossed with molecular biology is just plain cool. As a side discovery, they noticed some weird fractal patterns in colonies under the confocal microscope, apparently based on variation in the fluorescent protein expression level of cells in a single colony.
I wonder how much interest there would be from undergrads (and their supervising acedemics) to start an Australian iGEM team for 2007 ? Funding would also be a tricky issue, as always.