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Students, Scientists Build Biological ‘Machines’

December 30, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
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Student participants in the 2008 International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition crafted biological "machines," or living organisms, using original combinations of DNA and other organic material to help tackle environmental and health problems. Tom Bearden reports.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, solving biological problems by engineering living cells. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has this Science Unit report on the emerging field of synthetic biology.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour correspondent: More than 800 college kids from all over the world celebrating the end of months of intense work building biological machines. These were the final moments of the 2008 International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, or IGEM, on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

These young people spent their summer on their home campuses doing something called synthetic biology, a new way to approach solving the world’s problems using living organisms. The annual IGEM jamboree gives them the chance to show off all that work through a series of presentations.

The team from Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, invented Dr. Coli.

STUDENT: This is a self-regulating drug delivery system. It senses inflammation factors on a certain place in the body of the patient, and it reacts by producing the appropriate amount of drugs on that place. When the patient isn’t ill anymore, Dr. Coli will eliminate himself out of the body.

TOM BEARDEN: The Duke team focused on building bacteria to attack plastic waste in landfills to make it biodegradable.

Mississippi State worked on breaking down the tough cell walls of woody plants so they can be converted into biofuel.

And Rice University invented “bio-beer.” Their goal was to engineer a yeast that would produce resveratrol during the brewing process. Resveratrol is the substance found in red wine that’s been shown to greatly extend life in simple organisms.

'A discovery science'

TOM BEARDEN: At times, a layman who wandered into a presentation might have wondered what language they were speaking.

SPEAKER: This is the Tal gene, under the expression, under the regulation by the ADH1 promoter.

TOM BEARDEN: And with teams from 21 countries here, there were certainly a lot of languages other than English being spoken in the hallways. But everybody seemed to understand the common language of synthetic biology, even if jetlag occasionally took some people out of the discussion.

Synthetic biology is something of a departure from traditional biology. The basic concept is to build a biological machine, modify an existing organism, using standard parts, much like an engineer might design and build a computer using off-the-shelf microchips and circuit boards.

Randy Rettberg is a professor at MIT and IGEM director.

RANDY RETTBERG, IGEM director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Biology like you learned in high school is a discovery science. You're trying to find how the world works and then do something interesting based on that knowledge that you've achieve. Synthetic biology is more of an engineering activity. It's really building new things that didn't exist before.

TOM BEARDEN: Rettberg and others have established a parts bin, or a library of biological parts at MIT. Some of it is housed in a freezer in Rettberg's lab. They call these bits of DNA and other materials "biobricks."

STUDENT: So we're dealing with bacteria, right, so we've got lots of DNA floating around.

'Students are the best teachers'

TOM BEARDEN: Like all of the teams that participated in IGEM this year, the team from Brown University got its biobricks delivered by mail in the form of a loose-leaf binder. The bricks were dried on filter paper.

They punched out tiny circles of paper containing the parts they thought would do the work they wanted them to accomplish, multiplied them, and then implanted them inside bacteria. Professor Gary Wessel is the team's faculty sponsor.

Do they come up with ideas that surprise you?

GARY WESSEL, faculty sponsor, Brown University IGEM Team: All the time. Tom, this is I think one of the joys of the job. I am constantly learning in this profession, and the students are the best teachers oftentimes.

TOM BEARDEN: The idea the team came up with this year was to create a cheap way of detecting the presence of toxic material in water, something that could be enormously valuable in countries that can't afford major laboratory facilities.

Harvard Professor Pamela Silver thinks synthetic biology has incredible potential.

PAMELA SILVER, professor, Harvard Medical School: The green bottle has photosynthetic bacteria in it. And our hope is to use these bacteria -- they can harvest sunlight and live on sunlight -- and use them to produce biofuels, for example, hydrogen or biodiesel.

I think there are people saying, "This is the future of technology in biology." And so that makes it just as exciting. We're not all going to go out and be professors and academics. Instead, can I go out and save the world, for example? So there is this sense of, "I can change the world."

TOM BEARDEN: Well, if you can make fuel out of sunlight, that would change the world.

PAMELA SILVER: We're going to do it, man. This is -- you're going to have this growing on your roof.

Do-it-yourself mentality

TOM BEARDEN: Mac Cowell, one of the original organizers of IGEM, have the honor of announcing the finalists culled from the day-long round of presentations.

Cowell is something of an evangelist for synthetic biology. He wants to democratize the field, essentially create a corps of amateur bioengineers who could contribute without investing years of their lives in graduate degrees. He points to people who build computers in their garages as a model for what he has in mind.

To further that idea, Cowell and Jason Bobe co-founded an organization called DIYbio, or Do-It-Yourself Biology. They held the group's first organizational meeting in this pub earlier this year.

MACKENZIE COWELL, co-founder, DIYbio: We sent out this e-mail saying, "Hey, community, we're really interested in do-it-yourself biology. We're not sure what that means yet. Here are some ideas about what that could mean. Let's get together and figure it out."

And so we e-mailed that out to very few mailing lists, just a couple. And we met here at 7 o'clock like four months ago and -- five months ago -- and some really cool people showed up, including some real academics, like heavy hitters from Harvard and MIT. So it was cool to see them in the room with, like, computer scientists, with, like, high school students.

TOM BEARDEN: DIYbio had another meeting at MIT recently, where Cowell and Bobe broached the idea of building public laboratories, where enthusiasts could conduct experiments.

MACKENZIE COWELL: We sort of came up with the main idea. We should be safe, open, responsible. We should...

Concerns over regulation

TOM BEARDEN: Even though there are regulations that make it difficult to procure certain types of biological material, some find opening the field to amateurs worrisome.

Roger Brent, the director of the Molecular Sciences Institute at the University of California at San Francisco, thinks some sort of oversight is necessary for do-it-yourself biology.

ROGER BRENT, director, Molecular Sciences Institute: Reluctantly, no, I don't trust them to regulate themselves. I don't see it as plausible that a person, perhaps even a teenager, would be allowed to build and release an animal virus that could be transmitted to human to human.

The kind of regulation I'm talking about can only happen at a national level, and it only makes sense if it's done in concert with harmonized regulations in other countries. This is exactly the model of driver's licenses, pilot's licenses, radio operator's licenses.

TOM BEARDEN: Jason Bobe also thinks there should be safety rules, but not necessarily government regulations.

JASON BOBE, co-founder, DIYbio: By having an organization who wants to promote on the one hand innovation and education and learning, it's also a great opportunity for us to help be innovators in regulatory policy and safety, too.

TOM BEARDEN: Back at the IGEM awards ceremony, the Brown team's hard work paid off with a major award.

PRESENTER: Our second area award for environment, best environment application, was awarded to Brown University.

TOM BEARDEN: But when it came time to give the grand prize, a metallic representation of a biobrick, pranksters had hidden it.

PRESENTER: The judges do not know where the brick is.

ATTENDEE: Under the table.

TOM BEARDEN: It was eventually given to the team from Slovenia for its effort to create a synthetic vaccine against helicobacter pylori, a bacteria that infects half the world with ulcers and other gastric problems.

From five teams in 2004, the competition grew to 84 this year. Organizers expect it to be even bigger next year. So they're starting a new research project: figuring out how to pay for moving up to a major convention center.