iGEM Jamboree 2016

A recap


  1. I'd say the Jamboree was the highlight of the whole iGEM experience for me. After three fascinating yet exhausting days of presentations, posters, workshops, and networking, I wanted to collapse at home and sleep for 24 hours...except I had class back at Northwestern the next day. There's so much to unpack, so I'll dive right in starting with the projects themselves.
  2. Here are, in ascending order, my favorite teams and presentations with links to their wikis:
  3. Stanford-Brown (an odd cross-country collaboration between Stanford and Brown based at NASA Ames Research Center) had an interesting biomaterials project called Bioballoons. They envisioned exploring the Martian atmosphere with a weather balloon made of bacteria-grown latex and a number of different biosensors. (This was one of many "let's send biotech to space" teams this year.) They were really impressive: they got E. coli to make cis-1,4-polyisoprene (natural latex) and made thermometers out of chromoproteins that they actually tested in a weather balloon at 10,000 feet. They accomplished a lot of individual pieces of their project but I thought their proof of concept claim was a bit of a stretch.
  4. Genspace! I love Genspace! They're a community lab in New York City mostly made up of high school students, some trained academics, and a couple of moonlighting science enthusiasts. They're unaffiliated with any university, and how they accomplished the work they did (read: they're way better than us) is amazing and beyond me. As you can see, they love tardigrades. First, they wanted to use tardigrades as model organisms for studying development. Secondly, they attempted to clone some tardigrade proteins linked to dessication tolerance into different model organisms in pursuit of alternative vaccine storage (in the vein of Jim Collins' recent work). They also came up with a cool way to measure plasmid copy number with qPCR that won a measurement prize. Talking to them piqued my interest in the DIY bio movement, and I had many conversations with them and the UChicago team about why it hasn't taken hold in the Windy City. This is Genspace and their lab manager in a tardigrade costume.
  5. Imperial College took home the undergraduate grand prize with a very computation-heavy project. They designed circuits to balance growth of two different bacterial populations in co-culture, exploiting quorum sensing signals and RNA logic. They built off work on STARs (short transcription activating RNA) from our very own Lucks Lab! Their website/poster/presentation is gorgeous, but I would've appreciated just a little more explanation of how STARs work, as they highlighted that they were the first iGEM team to submit STAR parts to the registry.
  6. Boston University has both a wet lab and hardware team, and their hardware team made a cool open-source design suite for printing microfluidic chips. Hardware is an under-utilized category in iGEM, which is a shame because there's so much possibility here to make low-cost research tools (see: Bento Lab, the portable home gel box/PCR machine). BostonU demoed all their gear in the poster hall and printed microfluidic chip keychains for everyone. There was a long line and I never got one. Darn.
  7. UAE-Norwich tried to use bacterial "nanowires" to produce diatomic hydrogen. Their intent for this was to somehow store the excess energy from wind and solar farms that doesn't get used up. But the awesome part of their project came from their human practices. They made a "molecular VR experience" about their project for the Samsung VR headset. As someone with terrible spatial reasoning, I think this is a great idea and I'm all for VR as an educational tool. You could take this a step beyond and interact with/manipulate your crystal structures!
  8. And finally, overgrad grand prize winners Munich LMU & TU (a joint team from two German universities) made a functional "bio-ink" prototype for 3-D tissue printing and a retrofitted 3-D cell printer to boot. Essentially their idea is to use biotin-streptavidin binding on cell surfaces to network biotinylated cells together in a streptavidin-containing matrix--constructing a three-dimensional "tissue." Much in the spirit of iGEM, their work is again, all open-source and open-hardware. In my opinion, this was the most elegant, complete project in the whole competition. Plus, they presented in lederhosen.
  9. iGEM also hosted a number of excellent workshops and panels. I personally went to a talk with PLOS community editor and MIT grad student Aaron Dy and PLOS Collections editor Nathaniel Gore about publishing and communicating research. Some takeaways: tell your audience why they should care, maximize signal to noise in your figures, and impact factor sucks. Aaron also had some helpful tips for applying to grad schools, which is totally not looming ominously in my near future. Haha. Ha.
  10. Friday night there was a great question-and-answer panel about careers and directions in synbio with Bethan Wolfenden of Bento Lab, Charles Fracchia of BioBright, and Barry Canton of Gingko Bioworks. I noticed there's a lot of interest in startups versus academia among iGEMers. Maybe it's the think-big attitude iGEM fosters. However, several international teams (Peshawar, Egypt, etc.) from countries new to synbio wanted to know how to get institutional support and mentorship for their iGEM programs, and the panel didn't really have a good answer for that, IMO.
  11. Oh, on Sunday night George Church was there checking out the poster hall! Apparently, he stops by every year (I mean, Harvard) but it was a surprise to me as a newbie iGEMer. This was the ultimate nerd moment--everyone mobbed him to take pictures and get him to sign things, and then he had a posse follow him around for like half an hour. Only at iGEM.
  12. My favorite part of the weekend was realizing what creative weirdos we all are. It made me remember an op-ed that was circulating a few months ago by a "serious academic" frustrated by social media (aside: wow look at all the things I can show you from this conference on Twitter). No one in iGEM is a "serious academic"; iGEM actively encourages all of us to think outside the box and communicate creatively beyond the ivory tower. It's silly and fun and exhilarating.