A genetically engineered vaccine for the bacteria that causes stomach cancer and ulcers has won the Grand Prize at the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, or iGEM, in Cambridge, Mass.
Each year, teams from around the world, mainly undergraduates, spend six months designing, and then creating, bacteria and fungi with new properties for the competition. Entries have included everything from microbial fuel cells to yogurt-induced kidney dialysis.
Held this year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the fifth iGEM Jamboree had more than 85 registered teams.
"When we first started this, a lot of my colleagues thought that this was too tough for undergraduates, that this would discourage them from the field of biology," said Randy Rettberg, iGEM Director.
The winning design this year was from Slovenia. The 13-member team used the tools of synthetic biology o create a prototype vaccine against stomach bug Helicobacter pylori, which can cause ulcers and, in rare cases, lead to cancer.
The Slovenian team created two vaccines that activate both parts of the human immune system. Tested in test tubes and in mice, the vaccines successfully activated immune system agents targeted against the harmful bacteria.
The team hopes to continue testing the vaccines, eventually in humans.
Other teams targeted different parts of the human digestive system. The host team from MIT tried to design yogurt that produces a peptide that stops Streptococcus metans, the bacteria responsible for some cavities, from sticking to teeth. Instead the injurious bacteria slip right off the teeth and down into the stomach.
The team from NYMU-Taipei, one of six finalists, designed another probiotic, designed to pull harmful waste usually removed by the kidneys from the blood stream, via the small intestine. Their yogurt mix would act as form of kidney dialysis.
The Harvard team went an entirely different route. Using a bacteria recently discovered in Lake Oneida, Team "Bactricity" created a microbial fuel cell. Instead of trying to create a new source of electricity, the team instead created a way to measure gene expression using electricity. The scientist who developed the most widely used method for measuring gene expression, using a green-glowing protein, won a Nobel prize earlier this year.
Other teams took on more light-hearted projects. Rice University students brewed "BioBeer," a hefeweizen made with yeast engineered to produce resveratrol, the chemical in red wine that has been shown to extend life in various animal models.
No matter what the project, the teams used the same toolkit -- and in many cases, the same tools. That's one of the big differences between synthetic biology and the older field of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is largely a custom-designed field; researchers create their own tools, a sometimes difficult and time-consuming process that can be hard for other scientists to replicate.
Synthetic biology aims to standardized all the tools and parts used in genetic engineering. One requirement of the competition is that all the parts created by the teams, called BioBricks, are registered with iGEM and made freely available to other teams.
"Teams this year have succeeded in completing projects they never could have when we first started," said Rettberg. "This is all possible because of the efforts of previous iGEM teams."
According to Rettberg, individual projects are "the tip of the iceberg ... The goal is not to do a particular thing; it's to make a new industry."
For the students, the science is certainly important, but exposure to the larger field of synthetic biology and meeting students with similar commitment from around the world is the highlight.
"Getting to come out here and presenting our work was for me the most enjoyable," said Taylor Stevenson, a member of Rice University's iGEM team. "Now I get to go back to all the other work that has piled up."
Richard Anthony, a professor of Applied Biology at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, has been asked by several students to put together an iGEM team. For him, iGEM is like a concept car; creativity and the ability to inspire are more important than practicality.
"It's great to see so many young people getting excited about biology," said Anthony. "Ultimately, I'm just an older version of these students."