The winning team of the overall iGEM Undergraduate Competition was from Heidelberg and consisted of twelve students and six advisors. Like the rest of their 2,000-plus colleagues, they were enthusiastic, thoughtful, well-spoken, and ready to talk about their work at the drop of a hat. More than their project, though, they were happy to discuss synthetic biology and their views of science in general. Five of the team members spoke with me early in the conference at their poster, long before they knew they were finalists, much less winners. Every one of them was engaged, and the team – again, like most of the others – displayed a cohesiveness that I’m sure was integral to their success. Everyone seemed comfortable with their role within the team. At one point a judge came by the poster a few feet away from where we were talking. Other team members had begun explaining the project to the judge, but I asked if the rest of them needed to get back over there. Elise laughed and said, “no no, it’s fine. It’s a distributive effort. Our project is based on distributive computing, distributive tasks, so they are well trained to share tasks amongst themselves.”
The team members I spoke with were Anna Huhn, Charlotte Bunne, Phillipp Bayer, Julia Neugebauer, and advisor Dr. Roland Eils. Information about the team and their project, called The Ring of Fire, can be found on the iGEM site. The themes and ideas they expressed were echoed repeatedly throughout the event by other participants, mentors, and judges alike.
When I caught them outside of the main hall after the awards ceremony, I asked if anyone would like to add to their previous remarks now that they had won. “No,” said Charlotte Bunne, “I think it’s just fine, what we said before.” They were ready to celebrate, ready to get back home and resume trying to “democratize biology” and create applications that solve real problems.
How do you define synthetic biology?
Anna: “We had a lot of discussion within the team because we had to do a lot of paperwork and a lot of writing on what we were doing and ‘what is synthetic biology?’ For example, for our project ‘iGEM at home,’ we had to make a website that explained to the public what synthetic biology is. There’s always the problem of the vision of synthetic biology of creating a synthetic organism that is completely designed by rational design. But on the other side you realize that you cannot do this yet. So there’s this gap between the vision and what is being done in synthetic biology right now […] It’s a question we still need to answer.”
Phillip: “Of course you have to define a new field so people can jump in, but I would not get focused on trying to define a new field so as not to put too many limitations on it.”
What is the most exciting thing you have seen in synthetic biology?
Anna: “Using synthetic biology not necessarily for gene therapy but to heal diseases in the body […] There are a lot of ethical issues, but actually using synthetic biology as an individual system and detector [to do things] that could never be done by humans. Detecting and solving diseases, this is really amazing.”
Phillipp: “One of the most amazing things about synthetic biology is something that comes with the concept [of bringing] engineering to biology, which means that you have kind of the democratization of biology. Everyone from different fields – and even after this year people from community labs – should be able to jump in and bring their own issues from every day life and then try to help solve these in a community. That is just amazing.”
Charlotte: “Scientists of many different fields working together; engineers and biologists and chemists […] I think that brings much more input than just working only in your field.”
What are the biggest challenges you see facing synthetic biology?
Phillipp: “I think that synthetic biology is really on the edge of questions that concern society, so I think that one of the biggest issues here is that, for example, people don’t feel comfortable with genetic engineering. We are constantly trying to bring some applications to the public, but there are lots of problems that have to be solved before that. For instance, in Europe there are laws that do not permit the use of GMOs in lots of applications that might be very interesting for people […] I think this is one of the biggest issues. Also, I think that there are lots of people who think we have to raise public acceptance [of synthetic biology], but this is a weird concept that has been proven wrong already many times. It’s not always possible to give them more information [that] would change their minds and then say, ‘ok, let’s do it.’ You really have to make what you do acceptable by integrating all the questions that are out there in society into your planning and your project.”
Roland: “The whole idea of synthetic biology is the idea to introduce rational design into a more trial and error-driven field like biology. I think the claim has been out there for ten or fifteen years, but we don’t see many examples of where this successfully happened. [The vision is] to sit in front of your computer and you just explain to a computation program what you would like to do, and it actually would come up with a rational design of the different parts and how you would need to bring them together. Then you would click on a website and all these parts would be shipped to your place, there would be a protocol explaining how to do it and then you just implement it. Then the most important part will be that it actually works […] But that’s a very long way to go.”
Do you think iGEM will help bring about this “plug and play” system?
Phillip: “Yes, I think so. We see where every year [at the competition], new issues arise and you can see that the year after, people jump in and try to solve these problems. At the same time, synthetic biology puts a lot of pressure on the rest of biology because if you want to have an application at the end, it has to work. There are no excuses so the data you get in and the information that you collect has to be really good. Therefore, iGEM teams develop lots of tools and software to make sure that all the data is in place before you even start designing your final application.”
Charlotte: “Yes, but it is important still to get the acceptance of the public.”
Talk more about your experience with iGEM.
Charlotte: “I don’t know how many projects from iGEM teams are repeated or that you can find in industry. So sometimes, I think [they’re] just future ideas, not current plans.”
Anna: “Yes, a lot of them are stopped right after iGEM. It’s like they are just iGEM projects and they’re not continued. You have to get the acceptance of industry and other researchers that iGEM is actually doing some foundational work where others could take up the idea and continue it but a lot of projects have great ideas but they are just stopped because the public has not the awareness of iGEM and the students [and their] contributions to synthetic biology.”
Julia: “I think that having a transition of project ideas developed for iGEM into real applications is crucial. There are lots of great ideas, great startup projects, so they should be implemented or followed up on.”
Phillipp: “iGEM is kind of a new learning approach. It’s peer learning, so the students think of a new idea and they do some research, but then they work on the project together with their advisors. They do something new that has never been here before so everyone on a team is learning at the same time…so I think that not only companies but also academia should jump in and take this kind of work and this kind of learning very seriously and implement them into the programs that they have. I could imaging there being and iGEM kinds of PhD program that could be very successful.”
What’s one thing you want to tell people about synthetic biology?
Phillipp: “To the public I want to say, ‘stay tuned.’ Be interested and be aware of the fact that in the next years there will be more and more ways to get involved in synthetic biology, so you can really get involved by figuring out what projects you want to support. For example, in our project we came up with a distributive computing platform where everyone can just jump in and say, ‘ok, I want to share my resources.’ And I guess for funding in the future there will be more and more ways for [people] to contribute to the research you want to support. You can get involved rather than just being passively informed by the media.”
Charlotte: “But on the other side, to the iGEM community, you can say, ‘involve the public as much as you can.’”
If you had a magic wand and could do anything with synthetic biology, what would it be?
Phillip: “I don’t think I have the right answer […] because having a magic wand I would not change anything in synthetic biology. I think synthetic biology should always drive towards applications that serve people and if I had a magic wand I would just try to solve people’s problems. [But, maybe] I would create the ultimate communication platform for synthetic biology and iGEM researchers. There are still so many issues in the way of direct communication, direct data exchange. If it would be possible to have a really powerful tool for direct communication between teams and researchers […] that would be amazing.”
Charlotte: “Chocolate without calories.”
The interview finished as I asked Eils would like to add anything as an advisor. “No, I think I can’t add anything more than calorie-free chocolate. That would be the ultimate moon shot program for synthetic biology, and I think it would raise the public acceptance for synthetic biology dramatically if you came up with such product. So that would be great.”