Banana Bred

On November 4 and 5, 400 students from 38 universities around the world gathered at the Stata Center for MIT’s second annual International Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM). The competition, whose purpose is to promote the building of biological systems from standardized parts (and the field of synthetic biology in general), challenged each team to build something novel from components such as those in the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Created by MIT, the registry contains snippets of DNA proven to perform specific functions in living cells. MIT’s team won the Best System prize for genetically engineering E. coli to smell like wintergreen while it grows and like bananas when it is finished growing. Team members sported black T-shirts bearing their project’s name: “Eau d’ecoli.” The grand prize went to Team Slovenia–eight undergraduates from the University of Ljubljana–for cells engineered to intercept an excessive response to infection that can lead to sepsis, an often fatal condition. Instead of using the registry’s parts to make their cells, the Slovenian students used ones they built themselves.

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