October 4, 2012
By Jan Ambrosini
The UC Berkeley team for the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) won first place and the best presentation award at the Americas West Regional Jamboree held at Stanford Oct. 12-14, ensuring their participation at the World Championships at MIT in November.
iGEM stands as the premiere undergraduate synthetic biology competition. Student teams receive a kit of standard interchangeable DNA parts at the beginning of the summer from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Working at their own schools over the summer, they use these parts and new parts of their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.
In the fall, teams come together to present their summer projects and compete for awards and prizes, first in Regional Jamborees in their region (Europe, Asia, Latin America, Americas-East, Americas-West), and then at the World Championship Jamboree.
Berkeley has sponsored a team almost since the beginning of iGEM, starting in 2005. Since then, the size of the competition has increased dramatically to its current size of more than 170 teams from around the world, necessitating a two-tier competition. Following regionals, one-third of the teams advance to the world competition in Boston.”iGEM is a special opportunity for the students to get a genuine research experience in a short period of time, from conception to presentation with all the failures and redesigns in between,” says bioengineering assistant professor John Dueber, who provided faculty leadership to this year’s team. “By the time the students present, they have taken complete ownership of the project and can also appreciate the other teams’ talks and posters. It’s an intense program, but extremely rewarding in the end.”
The 2012 Berkeley team focused on “MiCodes: Enabling library screens with microscopy by connecting genotypes to observable phenotypes.” These microscopy barcodes enable automated, high-throughput library screening by coupling a unique fluorescence signature with each genotype present in a library.
Berkeley team members (all undergraduates) came from multiple departments: BioE, ChemE, MCB, and ESPM. Mentorship and advising were provided by Dueber along with graduate student Will DeLoache and lecturer Terry Johnson.
“The jamboree was a great experience,” says third-year bioengineering student Robert Chen. “We were humbled by the achievements of other teams and enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm at the event. What I really love most about iGEM is that it really puts the control in the students’ hands, I could see how the work I put into the project directly translated into the success at the regionals.”
Team members’ varied academic and personal backgrounds enabled the group to approach problems through different perspectives, says fourth-year chemical engineering student Harneet Rishi. “The iGEM program has allowed me to grow as both an independent thinker and a more vocal communicator through the rigorous research and collaborative team dynamics. It has truly been an excellent and enjoyable learning experience.”