Playing with Lego May Forge the Future

OSLI has sponsored eight university teams from around the world in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) 2011 iGEM, the world’s foremost synthetic biology competition.

BioBuilder Blog (vimeo)

For those new to the term, synthetic biology is the science of engineering using biological parts and systems, which turns out to be a lot like playing with LegoTM. Imagine a vast repository of biological ‘bricks’, much like LegoTM pieces, that can be fit together and engineered to operate together – all within a living biological system. That’s the basis of iGEM’s Registry of Standard Biological Parts, a continuously growing collection of genetic parts that can be mixed and matched to build synthetic biology devices and systems.

Every iGEM team is encouraged to register their newly engineered biological parts in the Parts Registry.  Each year, new teams who participate in iGEM can access the registry and use any of the parts in their summer’s project.  iGEM’s Parts Registry is the largest of its kind, with over 15,000 parts registered.

“What’s great about this year,” says OSLI competition coordinator Jill Lang “is that we’re finding teams working with parts developed by last year’s teams, so their projects are starting to align.”  OSLI sponsored five teams in the 2010 competition.

“For example,” says Lang “five of the projects address five separate issues that by themselves don’t have a huge impact – but when you link them together they could potentially address a major challenge in the oil sands which is the mobilization of bitumen.  That is why we are encouraging the teams to communicate and work together.”

These five teams are focusing on detecting, mobilizing and breaking down bitumen, a heavy viscous form of crude oil, and chemicals in the oil sands – as well as coagulating and removing specific chemicals from the environment.

Queen’s University (Canada): These students are planning to engineer an organism that can move quickly over large distances towards specific chemical molecules, and couple the molecular detection system to an engineered biological mechanismfor the reporting and/or catalytic breakdown of these molecules in the environment.  To achieve the goal of rapid movement and detection, the Queen’s team will be using the highly sensitive sensory system found within a microscopic roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans.  They will then work to combine the characteristic of rapid movement and detection with any number of available Bio-Bricks already in the iGEM parts registry, such as the bioluminescence gene from the fire-fly.  In this instance, if specific compounds are present in a soil sample a concentration of fluorescence would reveal those compounds.

University of Debrecen (Hungary): The team from Hungary will continue the work started last year (cloning and characterizing the nuclear receptors of an organism) to find other potential sensors of oil derivatives, as well as develop new DNA binding domains that can trigger specific genetic programs such as a partial digestion-like mechanism.

University of Calgary (Canada): The UofC team is planning on developing a low cost, sensitive, and selective biosensor that can detect naphthenic acids (NA) in tailings ponds and other environments.  Calgary will be working with the bacterium Pseudomonas to monitor levels of NAs.  The team will consider reporting mechanisms based on bioluminescence, pigment production and an electrochemical device (similar to a blood glucose monitor).  The intent is to develop a biosensor that would have great application when considering land reclamation (e.g. reforestation) over former tailings ponds.

Technical University of Delft (Netherlands): This experienced iGEM team is planning to develop a system to control the in situ binding (through adhesion) of cells which can then be used to retain or remove cells from the environment.  Delft plans on using a heterologous (from a different species) adhesive protein that will be able to control the adhesion of cells to other cells, as well as that of cells to surfaces.  The protein is expressed by introducing a BioBrick carrying the mfp5 sequence from mussel with a membrane anker.

University of Lethbridge (Canada): Based on last year’s success in creating micro-compartments, the Lethbridge team is planning to continue their quest for creating a dry powder that will assist in speeding metabolism of specific compounds in tailings water.  They plan to degrade compounds such as catechol into metabolizable compounds at increased rates by using proteins that act within a common degradation pathway, co-localized within a microcompartment in the form of an easily distributed dry powder. They will also engineer the formation of iron nanoparticles, which allow for the removal of heavy metals.

Two of this year’s OSLI sponsored synthetic biology teams are focusing on biofuel production:

University of Alberta (Canada): The UofA is planning to engineer a filamentous fungus, or thread-like mold, known as a natural cellulose metabolizer to generate high levels of fatty acids which are used in biofuel production.   The team’s intention is to use synthetic biology to engineer these fatty acids from readily available biomass such as straw, wood, and compost.  Fatty acids are the basis for fatty acid alcohol esters, also known as biodiesel.

University of Washington (USA): The goal of the UofW’s team is to develop a renewable, domestically produced, drop-in replacement, carbon-neutral fuel source.  Towards that goal, the UofW’s 2011 iGEM team is engineering E.coli to generate alkanes, the primary components of petroleum-derived liquid fuels.  E.coli does not normally produce alkanes, but by introducing a novel set of genetic parts the team is attempting to engineer it to produce several different alkanes in order to make a perfect replacement for the liquid fuels used today.

One unique project is focused on enhancing hydrogen generation (& nitrogen):

University of Mexico: The University of Mexico team is planning to enhance hydrogen production by using the Rhizobium Bacteria, a nitrogen fixation bacterium, which naturally creates hydrogen as a byproduct.  The team is looking at elevating the hydrogen production to a usable threshold while preserving the bacteria’s nitrogen fixation and symbiotic capabilities.  The intent is to create an eco-friendly alternative to chemically derived soil enrichment.