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One of the most important goals of the competition is to stock the shelves of the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, a sort of hardware store of genetic parts housed at MIT. “The idea is to standardize parts and the way they are put together, in the same way electrical and mechanical parts are standardized,” says Knight. “And to be able to give people a reasonable assurance that the parts, when put together, will function as they were designed to.” During the course of its project, the MIT team has deposited about a dozen newly made parts into the registry for use by other members of the synthetic-biology community.

As the number and complexity of parts grow, both students and industry and academic scientists can make ever-more-complicated designs. The machines entered in the 2006 iGEM competition have doubled in size in the past two years, from about 6,000 to 12,000 letters of DNA. “These [projects] represent the largest designed genetic systems that have ever been developed,” says Chris Voigt, a bioengineer at the University of California, San Francisco, who is advising one of the student teams. “Understanding how to push the size and complexity of these systems is what is going to have an impact.”

Entries in this year’s competition come from as far away as Africa and Japan, and will include a range of strange creations. Some are practical, such as a biosensor that can detect arsenic concentrations for use in tainted wells. Others are more whimsical, such as a bacterial night-light that glows when it gets dark. The oddest creation, perhaps, is the entry from the University of Freiberg, in Germany: a microscopic, DNA-based clothing line, christened “Barbie Nanoatelier” by the team.

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