They built them – innovative and creative biological systems to improve medicine, energy, the environment and more. Even more impressive, the systems are student-created and built at the most diminutive of levels, the molecular level.
On Oct. 13 and 14, these bioengineering wonders will be showcased and judged at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) Americas East regional competition – or jamboree, as it’s known – on the campus of Duquesne University.
The largest synthetic biology competition, iGEM is global and attracts 190 collegiate teams encompassing nearly 3,000 students from more than 30 countries. In Pittsburgh, 275 undergraduate students from the U.S. and Canada – accounting for 40 teams – will share biological systems developed over the summer using engineering principles, standard molecular biology techniques and a bit of bacteria. Previous teams have created probiotic foods for gluten intolerance, new strategies for cancer drugs, advanced biofuels and remediation of toxic waste – to name a few examples. The 2012 teams’ creations will be revealed and judged, and the winning team will advance to the iGEM global finals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this November. Among the competitors are teams from both Carnegie Mellon Universityand Penn State.
Why do these microscopic marvels matter? Well, this is a century of biology – some, including President Obama, say – much as the 20th century was an age of technology. Synthetic biology enables revolutionary advances that can allow people to live better and to better interact with their world. It’s a fairly new field that’s quickly being recognized as a “prominent emerging technology,” and it’s an industry that will be shaped by today’s youth. As Tom Richard, a professor of biological engineering at Penn State and of the Pittsburgh iGEM jamboree organizers, says, “The iGEM competition and the alumni community it forms are the primary sources of synthetic biologists who will impact the industry.”
Their impact is bound to touch the lives of ordinary people, like you and me. We’ll live better and be healthier because of synthetic biology.
Interestingly, synthetic biology has Pittsburgh roots in Herbert Boyer – born in Westmoreland County and schooled at both St. Vincent College and Pitt. Dr. Boyer is a co-founder of Genentech the first company to commercialize recombinant DNA technology, the foundation of the synthetic biology field.
“Dr. Boyer must be proud that his native Pittsburgh region – once a world capital of steel manufacturing and industry – is now capital of knowledge where health care and life sciences is the fourth largest industry sector, in terms of gross regional product,” said Allegheny Conference on Community Development CEO Dennis Yablonsky, who in 2000 founded the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse – an incubator focused on growing the region’s biosciences companies.
What better place than Pittsburgh for the revelation of new synthetic biology advances at this weekend’s iGEM jamboree? We’ll look forward to seeing what the mastermind competitors have created almost as much as we’re anticipating presenting Pittsburgh a possible place for these young women and men to advance a world-class education and grow an exciting career in our life sciences sector.