Biotechnology teacher Laura O’Brien recently returned from a trip to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she participated in a synthetic biology competition. She, a team of high school students and Stanford undergraduate and graduate students had been working since last spring on a project for the competition, which included 130 teams from all over the world.
Synthetic biology is an area of biological research that combines science and engineering to create new biological systems or entities that are not found in nature.
“Basically,” said O’Brien, “[synthetic biology] uses living systems to design devices that are useful to people. It can be used in medicine to diagnose or treat disease, detect environmental pollutants, produce biopolymers, and many other things.”
The competition is called the International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition (iGEM). It was started in 2004 to get college undergraduates involved in synthetic biology.
For their projects, O’Brien’s team and other teams used “building blocks” of DNA to create a biological system of their own designs.
“We spent our summer in the lab actually putting the pieces of DNA together and into bacteria. We made bacteria that could sense the ratio of two different chemicals that it was exposed to,” said O’Brien. “The lab work was really intense, time consuming, and, at times, frustrating.”
During the spring and summer before the competition, the team maintained a website about its project and sent in pieces of DNA as they were built. On Nov. 6 and 7, as a culmination of their hard work and research, all of the teams flew to MIT to present their work to judges and the other competing teams.
“We flew in to the competition on a redeye and practiced and worked on our presentation pretty much up to when we presented, so we didn’t really sleep for two days,” said O’Brien about the trip.
Her team was one of 60 to go home with a gold medal. As demanding as the trip might have been, O’Brien says she enjoyed her time at the competition.
“The other projects that I had time to see were really interesting. The trip was stressful, mostly because we had to prepare the presentation, but it was a lot of fun,” said O’Brien.