497-518: Engineering Life in the Service of Humanity — The IGEM Competition

Meeting Day/Time
Fridays 10:00 am to 12:40 pm
Nick Menhart (BIO) (menhart@iit.edu) and Abhinav Bhushan (BME) (abhushan@iit.edu)
Appropriate Majors
All interested students are welcome.

Can we apply engineering and design principles to Life? Can we modify, build, design and use modified living systems for our own purposes? Indeed, should we? And if so – what roles can engineered life play?

These are all questions central to IGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition is a student centered competition and professional development activity at the interface of Engineering and Biology. Lying within the emerging discipline of “Synthetic Biology” this has arisen out of our increasing ability to manipulate genetic material as we enter the post genomic age. This project focuses on assembling an Illinois Tech entry for IGEM 2019, an international student competition and conference held annually at Harvard/MIT. Teams from across the US and internationally gather to present their projects, learn from each other, and interact and compete. In 2018, 371 teams (79 US) from 46 countries gathered. Teams develop, present and analyze novel engineered living systems that illustrate how engineering principles can be integrated into biology and biotechnology to develop novel applications.

This is planned as a three-semester IPRO experience, involving spring, summer and fall 2019 teams, with the competition and conference occurring within the timespan of the fall 2019 IPRO team. Ideally, several members of the spring 2019 IPRO team will continue in summer 2019 and/or fall 2019 to carry the project forward and participate in the competition, representing Illinois Tech.

The spring 2019 IPRO team will have provided a direction for the type of living system that IIT should develop for the competition. This process involves considering many non-technical issues before moving on to the technical issues involved in implementing this. For most revolutionary technologies, the conception preceded design: the idea of the iphone preceded the engineering needed to produce it. In synthetic biology, we need creative, innovative thinking about how we interact with the living world, and what sort of functions living systems can serve. We need to consider what sort of unique properties life and living organism bring to the table that are superior to existing methods  involving abiotic engineering, and how we can harness these properties to do something unique and useful

Application examples include:

  • Practical applications: use of living systems as photographic film, or to purify air of toxic gases, or to detect landmines
  • Tools development: developing minimal chassis or “motherboard” organisms that can serve a platform for other applications
  • Developing biological computational devices, or information storage devices.

Unique features of Life include:

  • Life is self-healing, and reproduces itself, avoiding the need for replacement
  • Life often can derive energy from the environment and can operate independent of human-provided power sources.
  • Life is adaptable and can change and evolve to accommodate a wide range of environment conditions
  • Life typically has minimal impact on the environment, produces no pollutants or toxic waste products.

So… what sort of thing can Life do? Let’s find out — through brainstorming and developing concepts that can make an IIT entry compelling. This semester’s IGEM IPRO will set the direction for further development in the next two semesters.

Students from many different disciplines are welcome can make important contributions in exploring this topic. This includes students with backgrounds in the life sciences or engineering, especially biology, chemistry, biomedical or chemical and biological engineering. Students representing political science and other social sciences fields, psychology, business, etc. can add valued perspectives that shape the direction of IIT’s entry in the IGEM competition.

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