Bringing together cellular biophysics, non-linear dynamics, reaction-kinetics and details of experimental molecular biology and genetics, is a field often touted as the next biotechnology revolution, namely synthetic biology. The field is exploding as seen in the number of publications with the term “synthetic biology” in them deposited in the biomedical literature database PubMed.
Into this mix of synthetic biology, was the advent of the international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) contest. Begun in 2003 as a part of Independent Activity Period (IAP) of undergraduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, students designed genetic oscillators with fluorescent reporters, based on the breakthrough “repressilator” network described by a group of biophysicists (Elowitz and Leibler (2000) Nature 403:335–338). The aim of the Elowitz and Leibler study was to ask if predictable behaviour of individual gene expression when coupled with others, could produce interesting behaviour. Combined with a theoretical model such a study would address in a physically well defined manner, some of the goals of synthetic biology. This undergraduate ‘boot-camp’ from the MIT has since then has rapidly expanded to a ‘contest’ format with international participation. The numbers of participating colleges and universities have steadily increased with the current number at ~300.
The IAP project went from the goal in 2003 to make cells `blink’ (temporal oscillations) to constructing spatial-patterns in a self-organized manner – Polkadorks. Soon other colleges began to participate, taken by the excitement of science and the less structured form of learning. iGEM has gone from strength to strength with this year (2015) the contest attracting 280 teams internationally.
In India, a team from the TIFR National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS) was the first to participate in 2007 led by Dr. Mukund Thattai. 2008 onwards has seen a steady increase in participation with IIT-Madras, IIT-Bombay, IIT-Delhi, IBB Pune University, IIT-Madras, IGIB New Delhi, ArtScience team from Bangalore, VIT Vellore, University of Rajasthan, Jaypee University of Information Technology Solan, IIT-Kharagpur and IISER Pune all joining in. The participation of ArtBangalore was in the unconventional Art track with a fruitful collaboration between NCBS and Srishti, an art and design school based in Bangalore.
This year IISER Pune conducted a national meetup from 16 to 17th July 2015. In other words the first national conference of the undergraduate teams in India. Team members from IIT-Delhi and IIT-Kharagpur made their way to Pune. Since this is an undergraduate contest, with able assistance from administration and the go-aheads from the heads of biology and the director, the students conducted the proceedings ably. Together with the PhD student mentors Manasi Gangan and Neha Khetan, three sessions were held, each for each of the attending teams.
A combination of presentations and plenty of unstructured time for discussions over two days ended with an exhortatin to collaborate more in future. Since the iGEM is a contest, it tends to drive a sense of secretivitiy at an early stage. Efforts were made to create a more collaborative atmosphere, without making any early revelations. This is in keeping with the open and shared science approach that forms one of the elements of the iGEM spirit. Kshitij Rai, Shubham Goel and Varsha Walvekar represented Team IIT-Delhi and Harsheel Soin and Rhushikesh Phadke represented team IIT-Kharagpur. The IISER Pune iGEM 2015 team with ten undergraduate members- all second-year BS-MS dual degree program students presented their work and received multiple questions. The India-Meetup was kindly supported by the IISER Pune itself.
From 19-23 July, students at the National Chiao Tung University (NCTU) Formosa in Taiwan organized an Asia Meetup as a warm-up meet. With most teams from Taiwan, China and Japan, both the IISER Pune and IIT Kharagpur teams attended via video-conferencing. Now, while the IISER Pune team prepares to make headway with the difficult and sometimes frustrating reaction chemistry of DNA and proteins mixed with cells, they look forward to completing the project in time for the 24-September Giant Jamboree in Boston.
Visit the Facebook page of IISER Pune’s iGEM2015 team for updates.
Acknowledgements: The IISER Pune team is supported by generous grants by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India and IISER Pune Core funding. The donors Eppendorf India Limited and Qiagen India Limited are sponsoring travel grants.
-Article by Chaitanya Athale