I’ve been co-teaching a short class on synthetic biology this spring through the MIT High School Studies Program (HSSP). The program is awesome, I took classes through a similar MIT program as a nerdy middle schooler and have had a great time teaching the past few weeks (if you’re in the Boston area I highly recommend checking it out as a student or as a volunteer teacher!). My students were terrific–smart, open to new and crazy ideas, thoughtful about bioethics issues, and enthusiastic about thinking about what biology can do and designing new biological species.
Today was our last day of class and we had a mini iGEM jamboree; small groups of students brainstormed and presented designs for their own microbe. The range and depth of the projects was fun and inspiring, although they also learned a little bit about how tricky experiments can be once you start to implement your designs through some simple lab-based exercises on extracting and transforming DNA.
One team thought up a self-solving bacterial rubix cube, with the bacteria in each center cube sending out quorum sensing signals that bacteria in neighboring squares can respond to by turning the appropriate color.
Another team went for a combo environment and health related project, designing eukaryotic cells that could capture and chew up hazardous bacteria in water, and use the energy they got from the bacteria to produce useful vitamins and pump them into the water. Always cautious about safety, the design included a “self-destruct” clock so that the bacteria would be clear of all cells–synthetic and otherwise–after two hours.
Last but not least, the third project presented at our mini jamboree was the Fresh pHish project, where engineered bacteria would live in fish tanks and sense for changes in the water quality that could hurt the fish, turning colors when it’s time to change the water because of pH change or when the temperature is too hot or too cold for the fish.
All these projects are terrific iGEM projects, creative, fun, and potentially useful, if not as a final product after just a summer of work, definitely in the parts and technologies that would be developed along the way. Previous iGEM project websites are available through the team wiki pages and are fun to browse if you want to get an idea for the fascinating and sometimes wacky ideas that the teams come up with and develop over the summer (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009). I’m helping out the Harvard iGEM team this year and as the summer gets started I’ll definitely be sharing more about our project and their blog will have more activity, so look out for that too!