Report on iGEM 09, from a newbie

P1000520This iGEM was my first. I’d read about it, talked about it, but this is the first time I’ve been immersed in it.

OK, so I wasn’t part of a team, so I told folks I was a “lurker.” That was out of the ordinary, since most folks were either staff, team members, or volunteers (which is what I should have done to save the registration fees – maybe).

Clever little undergrads
I’m not going to go into details as to how the teams got to the Jamboree. Suffice it to say that anyone who wanted to come, came; also, the teams were undergraduates who thought long and hard on what they would build and then built everything over the summer.

I was impressed with the creativity the teams showed. There was light-induced vanillin production (for the aroma), electrically-induced light production (creating pixels – see video below), various detectors (for toxic metals and mines), and inducible pigment production (to free us of the boring tyranny of all the usual fluorescent reporter proteins).

While some might call for something applied to come out of all this, I am content to see the participant’s enthusiasm; their learning of how to solve problems, think, and communicate results; the multi-disciplinary nature of teams, mixing engineers, biologist, sociologist, designers, mathematicians, physicists, artists, and programmers; and the gathering of like spirits to exchange information and dream up even more exciting things.

Keeping up with the E colis
For me, it was heaven. I had not been immersed in this field in so long. It was good to try to figure things out, talk about how decisions were made, and learn all the clever techniques and solutions folks came up with.

Of course, at the end, I started dreaming up some of my own “machines.” Who knows if I might be able to build one someday.

E. chromi
I was particularly pleased with the winning team – Cambridge – for their creation of inducible pigmentation in bacteria. Through a network of connections, I had met the irrepressible Daisy Ginsberg, a designer from London who has been exploring the future world where synthetically engineered biological organisms are established and integrated into society. Daisy coined the term Kingdom Synthetica to add to the Eucarya-Bacteria-Archaea Kingdoms that we already have.

Daisy, and her partner in design-crime, James King, worked with the Cambridge team to help them explore the sociological and design aspects of what the team was building.* They got the team to think of a future that had colored bacteria and what that would mean. For example, one team talked about color-poachers killing rare wild-life for color genes; or, global battles over patenting of colors (for example, the Dutch if China were to patent Orange).

The best example of the future was colored poop, formed by these color producing bacteria detecting metabolic states and reporting it through color production, say green for an ulcer or red for vitamin deficiency (see picture). This colored poop was the sensation of the Jamboree. James and Daisy walked around with a silver valise, telling their whole story and ending with opening the valise, much to the surprise of their audience.

It was very fun.

Naming gaming
Daisy christened the Cambridge bacteria as E chromi (@echromi on Twitter). And they presented their colored poop to the MOMA in NYC, so don’t be surprised if the valise ends up there.

Other teams also named their bugs, as in Essencia coli (Team KU Leuven) and GlueColi (Team ULB-Brussels).

Once again, these names just point out that this Jamboree is more than a bunch of geeks building gadgets, but a whole way of thinking and mixing and creating. This is all so embryonic and what will come out of it no one really knows. But what is sure is that mixing folks from different background in a fertile playground with no dominant player is a sure way to come up with lots of interesting things.

Now I’ll go off and start building my E coliroid (hm, what might that be?).

Here are some images and video that I took at iGEM:

*One nice feature of the competition was a thorough list of judging criteria, nudging the team to do more than just building something. Most interestingly, teams were encouraged to do a sociological survey around ethics, society, and synthbio. This added non-scientists to the teams. One of the most interesting findings (as these we mostly qualitative, due to experimental design constraints) was that folks were against genetically modified organisms (GMO) in general, but were fine with GMO use in humanitarian work, such as toxic waste or mine detection.


  1. Jason, thanks for the comment.
    Yes, I had read about the photosensitive bacteria (and the edge detector). That’s what was the inspiration. I just totally forgot that it was called Coliroid (which is probably why I was able to come up with the name!).
    But I was thinking, now with Echromi, the device could get an upgrade and create images in color, which I thought the original Ecoliroid didn’t do. Maybe that’d be Ecoliroid 2.0?

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