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Genetic 'Jamboree' draws innovators

Science students the world over share research

At MIT’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition yesterday, the audience listened to a presentation on synthetic biology.
At MIT’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition yesterday, the audience listened to a presentation on synthetic biology. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)

CAMBRIDGE -- One genetically modified bacterium infuses the aroma of mint and bananas into formerly foul-smelling biology labs. Another warns of arsenic in well water. And a third could someday be used to print color photos.

About 380 students from 37 universities around the world shared their research yesterday in synthetic biology, an emerging scientific field, during MIT's third annual International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, or the iGEM Jamboree.

The teams spent the summer designing and building biological systems using standard, interchangeable biological parts, such as bacterial genes, supplied by MIT. The students, mostly undergraduates, are essentially making new "tools" that scientists could use for future applications.

"The public can be a little afraid of synthetic biology because genetic engineering can be quite intimidating," said Judith Nicholson, a University of Edinburgh senior who worked on the arsenic detector. "People are focused on the controversy surrounding stem cells. We wanted to make something with real world use, a good, reliable biosensor that can be mass-produced and cheap."

While most teams worked with bacteria, such as E. coli , others used plant, mammalian , and stem cells. Students explained their work in lectures, poster exhibits, and in live demonstrations.

A group of MIT students, who wore black T-shirts emblazoned with their team name, "eau d'ecoli," stood in the hallway asking passersby to sniff test tubes filled with E. coli bacteria and mark what each tube smelled like: banana, mint or "stinky."

E. coli, a microbiology lab staple, smells like feet on a good day, one student said. Another compared it to "fecal matter."

"Our sense of smell was totally obliterated by this nasty E. coli," said Veena Venkatachalam, an MIT sophomore majoring in chemistry and physics. "We're just trying to save all of us from this terrible fate."

Via genetically engineered E. coli, the students managed to turn their lab into a more pleasant work environment that smells like a bakery. They engineered the E. coli to smell like mint while it was growing and to smell like banana when it was done.

Other scientists could use their discovery to make landfills, sewer treatment plants, and even armpits smell better. Or they could put the bacteria in yeast to make "minty fresh beer" or "banana-less banana bread," said Kate Broadbent, a sophomore majoring in biological engineering .

Another team, from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, modified E. coli to detect even low concentrations of arsenic in well water by changing its acidity, or pH level, which is easy to measure. This method is cheaper, easier, and more reliable than the current way of testing for arsenic, said bioengineering professor Alistair Elfick. Their discovery is particularly useful in other poor countries, where arsenic contaminates many drinking wells, causing skin lesions and cancer.

Members of Indiana's Purdue University team used lactose and t etracyline, an antibiotic, to turn E. coli red or green on command. They eventually hope to make biological photo paper, printing multicolored photographs using E. coli, said John Schumm , a junior majoring in agricultural and biological engineering.

The teams are competing this weekend for valor, not money. The grand prize winner, to be announced today, brings home the iGEM cup, a large aluminum BioBrick that organizers liken to the "World Cup."

The goal of the competition is to get young scientists to help spawn new industries in synthetic biology and make sure scientists worldwide are involved, said Randy Rettberg, a research engineer at MIT who runs the iGEM contest.

Half of the teams come from outside the United States. Competitors came from India, Japan, Mexico, Canada, England, Scotland, Slovenia, Turkey, Colombia, Spain, and Switzerland.

"If we have another huge industrial revolution, it's really important that it happens worldwide ," said Rettberg. "We have to have people all over the world making materials and energy to meet their own needs."

Tracy Jan can be reached at

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