Saturday, June 27, 2009


I spent the whole day programming for Waterloo's iGEM team. iGEM, for anyone who doesn't know, is the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition hosted by MIT, the goal of which is to figure out ways to design useful things out of biological components.

There's a subtle but important difference between iGEM's philosophy and conventional biotechnology, and it lies in the issue of design. People have been able to do things like getting bacteria to produce human insulin for a while now, by taking the human gene for insulin production and inserting it into the bacteria. What we haven't been able to do is to really understand the genes that we're dealing with.

Biological parts have been impenetrable black boxes: if something comes out of that box that we can use, that's great, but more often than not we would like to get into that box and tinker. What's more, these parts don't tend to play well with each other, and all sorts of chaos ensues when you start mixing together genes.

iGEM's approach is to create new biological parts. Parts that are not massively complex genes, but simple, reliable, reusable components that have intended purposes and known effects with other components. The goal, really, is to allow for true genetic engineering instead of genetic experimentation.

This isn't to say that all genetic parts created for iGEM are simple or reusable and it certainly doesn't mean that all that many of them are reliable, but we're working on it. The project I was coding today, for example, is intended to allow the team to predict the results of certain biological reactions, the end goal of which is to develop a repeatable method of inserting genes into chromosomal DNA.

At least, I think that's what it's for. Biology hurts my brain.


  1. Wow... that's a rather visceral depiction of Recombinatron. ... Ouch! My cytoplasm!

  2. Haha, yeah... it was the first thing I thought of upon hearing the name: a mechanical behemoth "brute-forcing" its way through cells and sending cytoplasm flying.

    It's actually a fairly apt description of the project when you think about it. Except for the SPLORT! That was a bit gratuitous. :)