International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM): exploring life’s undiscovered potential




Why you should visit this website: science doesn’t always have to be rocket-science.

What comes to your mind when ‘International Genetically Engineered Machine’, these four-word mantra, are read? Or ‘synthetic biology’, excluding the ‘standard parts’? What are you going to imagine with these highly technical words?

Well, for those who are yet to be acquainted with these terms, let me explain them in simpler vernacular wordings: synthetic biology is a hodgepodge of genetic engineering (where you manipulate an organism’s genetic materials) and engineering principle itself, with the aim of creating novel methods, or even new life forms, with better improved functions and efficiency which, as expected, can help solving contemporary problems we are being faced today. And iGEM is the main facilitator enabling such idea exchanges to flourish, which annually organizes an international competition with over hundreds of universities participating in exploring the potential of synthetic biology.

Still find it difficult to understand? Honestly, I’m still struggling with its very own definition as well. But I’ll give you some examples to have a better picture:

1. Manipulating a species of bacteria to enable them to detect if a meat product is rotting or not

2. Enhancing certain bacteria’s functions to solve oil spills

3. Inventing a new type of fat which, in complete reversal, helps reducing body weight

These are a mere handful of examples I’ve taken from some iGEM teams, but you can explore even more yourself in their wikis.

And, yes, honestly speaking, all the stuff involved inside is, indeed, honestly speaking, highly technical. When you look for every team’s project, you will be faced with an endless array of sophisticated terms, words that not even all scientific scholars will easily comprehend. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you will have to spend your whole time looking for science dictionaries to discover their meanings, though; that’s where iGEM’s strength starts to grow. Rather than entirely focus on in-the-lab work, all iGEM teams are required to implement ‘human practice’ as well – that is, in brief, to connect with the wider public about projects they have done beforehand, using simpler and more public-friendly terms. When you are interacting with the public (say, children as young as 9, or investors), it will be highly improbable to make use of all the scientific terms to explain your project, won’t it?

That’s the raison d’etre why science doesn’t always mean rocket science, as people will always perceive. Explore it yourself, and you will (gradually, I hope) start to have deep interest in it.



Bonus: truth be told, I am actually taking part in HKUST’s iGEM team this year. No, I’m not getting paid for ‘advertising’ this post (nobody even gets paid while in the team, indeed!); I only post it out of my own personal interest. But, open up your mind a bit, take a little precious time of yours to review some of these teams’ projects (forget about the technical terms, though, and you can jump yourself off into ‘human practice’), and you will get fascinated by the unexplored potential synthetic biology will promise in the future.

And, to be more honest, I’m actually considering a new blog category here to discuss about some iGEM projects I find to be of particular interest, but I’ll figure it out later. You will see it when you see it.


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