What is iGEM?
iGEM is an annual world-wide synthetic biology competition. Teams of students use standardized genetic parts to address real-world problems in fields including health and medicine, manufacturing, bioenergy, even art and architecture. Students also take their work beyond the lab, engaging with clinicians, regulators, policy experts and the general public to maximize their project’s potential real-world impact.
iGEM at MIT
This year’s MIT’s iGEM team is composed of 11 MIT undergraduates and one graduate student. The team draws students from departments all over campus, including biology, bioengineering, electrical engineering and computer science, math, mechanical engineering, even architecture.
The iGEM team begins meeting in January. With the help of the team’s advisors, students choose a project that matches their interests and takes advantage of the resources and expertise of the hosting laboratory. Over the course of the spring semester, the team refines their project idea, designs new genetic parts, and begins to learn the lab skills they’ll need to accomplish their project.
The centerpiece of iGEM at MIT is the 10-week summer semester. The students work at the MIT Synthetic Biology Center full-time. In addition to their research, they practice communication skills with the BE Communication Lab, engage in outreach with the Boston Museum of Science, and work closely with experts in their chosen problem.
iGEM culminates at the International iGEM Jamboree, a synthetic biology competition held each fall here in Boston. Each team presents a 20-minute talk and a poster. Teams are judged on the quality of their science as well as factors such as communication, outreach, collaboration with other teams, and the quality of genetic parts they submit back to the Registry of Parts for teams to use in future years. Teams can bring home awards for the best project in their subject area, as well as special awards for human practices and outreach, innovations in measurement, new biological parts and part collections, and new software tools, among others.
iGEM is a unique undergraduate research experience.
Participation in iGEM is different from a traditional undergraduate research experience (UROP) in several important ways. Perhaps the biggest is that students on the team participate in the entire research lifecycle: from project conception, to choosing their approach, planning and executing experiments, analyzing data, and finally communicating their results to a broader audience. This contrasts with a traditional UROP, where a student is paired with a graduate student or postdoc mentor to collaborate on their mentor’s ongoing research.
Second, working on a team is central to the iGEM experience. Teamwork helps the students develop their communication and coordination skills in an authentic collaborative environment, skills that are essential for professional scientists and engineers. As the summer progresses, students frequently begin to specialize, becoming experts in aspects of the project that they find interesting and rewarding, which gives them a greater sense of ownership over their work. Working on a team also improves student learning, both of broader skills for experimental design and analysis as well as the fine-grained operational knowledge required to execute them.
This year’s project: Endometriosis
This year’s iGEM team is developing an approach to detect and treat endometriosis, a condition that affects 1 in 10 women with debilitating menstrual pain and fertility problems. Endometriosis results when endometrial cells grow in places other than the lining of a woman’s uterus. Fortunately, these cells have a unique biomarker signature; the 2016 MIT iGEM team is working to develop gene circuits that can detect these biomarkers and may serve as the basis for new diagnostics or treatment for this devestating disease. For more on the iGEM team’s project and their approach, see this article in the online magazine The Odessey (written by one of the team members!)
Previous MIT iGEM projects
Previous iGEM projects at MIT have addressed a variety of real-world problems. They include:
- 2015: Turning agricultural waste into biofuels.
- 2014: Working to cure Alzheimers disease.
- 2013: Synthetic cell-to-cell communication for synthetic tissues.
- 2012: Encoding genetic logic in small RNA-based logical gates.
- 2011: Mammalian cell patterning and tssues by design.
- 2010: Programmable, self-constructing biomaterials.
Follow the links to visit each team’s project website.
MIT iGEM Alumni
Many alumni of the MIT iGEM teams have continued to pursue opportunities in science and technology. Alumni have also gone on to win prestigious awards, including 8 alumni who are Amgen Scholars, 1 alumnus who won a Rhodes Summer Scholarship, and 1 alumna who is a Hertz Fellow. Alumni have been hired by or matriculated to:
- Max Plank Institute
- Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
- MIT Department of Biological Engineering
- Merck Pharmaceuticals
- Alexion Pharmaceuticals
- Ginko Bioworks
- McKinsey and Company
- United States Senate
- Amazon Inc
- TU Dresden
- Universith of Washington
- Boston University
- Stony Brook University
- Cleveland Clinic
- Massachusetts General Hospital
- Johns Hopkins University
- Harvard University
- University of Wisconsin
Ongoing Research: iGEM Projects Beyond the Competition
The MIT iGEM teams’ projects frequently lead to continuing work in the Synthetic Biology Center after the iGEM Jamboree in October. iGEM projects that have led to expanded grant-driven research include:
- RNAi cancer therapy, where DNA circuits determine whether or not a cell is cancerous (led to a publication in SCIENCE)
- Microbial “sense and destroy” antibiotic therapy, where engineered bacteria sense signals from virulent bacteria and kill them (won a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation)
- Programming stem cells to differentiate into insulin-producing pancreatic cells (a project in an NSF-sponsored center.)
The iGEM Budget
This year, we have budgeted $5500 per student. This includes
- Summer living stipend ($4400)
- Jamboree registration ($600)
- Materials and supplies ($500)
We welcome the support of businesses, foundations and individuals as we work to provide authentic research experiences for undergraduates here at MIT. For more information, email Professor Weiss at rweiss AT mit DOT edu or Brian Teague at teague AT mit DOT edu.