updated 11/15/2010 11:50:01 AM ET 2010-11-15T16:50:01

The mother of all science fairs kicks off today in Boston. Nearly 2,000 whiz kids will be slicing and dicing bits of cellular material to build everything from glow-in-the-dark trees that act like biological streetlights to a personalized garden growing disease-busting plants.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition gives teams of college and high school students a standard kit of interchangeable biological parts several months ahead of time and challenges them to make something new for this weekend's biotech smackdown.

The winners have to convince the judges not just of their scientific skills, but also their creative spirit, said Randy Rettberg, iGEM director.

"The primary goal of the students is to impress the judges," Rettberg said. "But it's really open. Everyone try to make something new and worthwhile and scientifically valid."

The 130 teams represent universities and high schools in the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. Each squad tests its lab project over the summer months while building a wiki-based website to explain the results.

Charles Miller advises the Utah State University team, which is trying to build genetic material inside a photosynthetic cyanobacteria rather than the workhorse of the genetic engineering field, E. coli bacteria. Miller says the ultimate goal is to make it cheaper to produce vaccines and algae-based "green" fuels. Unlike E. coli, cyanobacteria only need water and sunlight to survive instead of a carbon source.

"Hopefully down the line there could be a cost savings and presumably a cheap source of energy," Miller said.

Commercial biotech firms cover the iGEM contest like pro scouts at a minor league baseball game. In fact, many teams have industry sponsors to help pay for materials, travel and extra costs associated with such a huge undertaking.

Last year's champions from Cambridge University won with a biosensor that uses cells that turn color in the presence of certain compounds.

"They did something that hadn't been done before," according to Jim Ajioka, senior lecturer at the university's Department of Pathology and faculty advisor to the team. "They took an engineering approach."

One pair of students put new genes in E. coli to make beta carotene, the orange pigment in carrots. Another pair of students used melanin and it made everything brown, Ajioka said. A third set used a purple pigment.

Alumni from last year's winning entry are collaborating with team members from the University of Edinburgh to combine the bio-sensor with an arsenic detector. Arsenic poisoning from drinking water has become a serious human health threat throughout the Indian subcontinent and a bio-sensor may serve as a low-cost early-warning system.

The students already have several firms interested in turning the science fair project into a real-world device.

Still, most teams are happy just to finish their projects. The team from Gaston Day School in Gastonia, N.C., decided to build an iron detector, but one part didn't work out as planned.

Senior Al Hall compared the process of genetically manipulating the different biological parts with building Legos: "We are taking Legos from two different bacteria and putting it in ours. But there was a new rule that support basis has to have certain antibiotic resistance, and we ran out of time."

Despite the setback, the six-member team is still flying to Boston to mix it up with the rest of the competitors.

"The cool thing about the (iGEM) jamboree," Hall says, "is not just what you made but the creativity involved."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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