It’s that time of year again (in the northern hemisphere at least!) when the first signs of summer start to appear… blossoms are on the trees, the cuckoo can be heard in the valleys… and around the world the iGEM teams are mustered!
The annual iGEM competition
Each year, university undergraduate teams assemble to join the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The competition started as a study course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003, where the remit was for students to develop biological devices. The course developed into a local competition, and has grown every year to its current status: a global competition with over 300 competing teams from more than 40 different countries.
Teams are for the most part undergraduate students, although there are now also categories for post graduate and high school teams. Students are usually invited to make an application to join their university team, and after interviews, the team (typically 10 students) is assembled.
Teams are multidisciplinary. With the remit to build a genetically engineered system that will have a positive impact on local or global communities, a successful team will need the input of business developers, mathematical modellers, social science and law students as much as it will the ‘core’ engineers and biologists.
At the end of the competition, the teams get the chance to present their projects at the Giant Jamboree (World Championship). This takes place in Boston, at the end of summer each year. There, the competition winners will receive their well deserved and highly prestigious accolades.
But there’s more to the iGEM competition than winning.
The competition fosters adoption of a wide range of positive values that allow a level of personal development in participating students, that will be unrivalled in their academic careers.
The teams work on their projects throughout the summer vacation period, so dedication and commitment is a necessity. Aside from developing a fast-tracked understanding of synthetic biology, being part of an iGEM team demands success in team work, networking, entrepreneurship, fundraising, project and team management, presentation and communication skills, as well as an awareness of ethics and social responsibilities.
But to come back to the common thread of the competition—Genetic engineering, synthetic biology, designing biological systems—It is advanced molecular biology that is forming the basis of the scientific work.
Students will spend most of their summer being supervised (but not assisted) in research labs as they navigate their way through novel techniques, protocols and equipment.
The learning curve they are exposed to is steep enough for the biology students who, until this point, have probably not done more in a lab than follow instructional teaching.
An annual problem with the iGEM teams then is just how to bring the team up to a common point of understanding about the laboratory challenge, to allow each member to be an effective contributor to their project.
Labster and iGEM
At Labster, we had received some feedback from customers about this need to use additional learning tools as an instructional resource for the teams.
It would save a lot of unguided (and misinformed) reading by the team, and relieve some of the strain that team members can feel at the outset of their journey, when a lot of this learning is done peer-to-peer.
We did some investigation of our own with past iGEM teams and supervisors, and found that the need for some kind of formal instruction at the inception of each project is much in demand.
However, the timing of the project means that supervisors can’t easily be available to deliver such a module of biology-help. It could become time consuming, and it would be a lot of material to deliver, that would have to be personalised to each student’s very varying background experience.
So Labster collaborated with Kirsten Jensen and Ke Yan Wen from Imperial College to build a simulation just for iGEM. Imperial’s ‘Eco-librium’ team scooped the iGEM Grand Prize in 2016, so they certainly knew where they were coming from in asking us to build an iGEM simulation with them!
Additionally, to help bring all team members up to this knowledge base, Labster has packaged a crash course in Molecular Biology, with some of the basic biology fundamentals in there too, to allow team members clear, guided learning through this subject area.
Molecular and synthetic biology simulations form a really strong core within the Labster catalogue—our hardest job was picking which ones to include!
We are very grateful to our experienced iGEM’ers who gave us valuable feedback with this: Kirsten Jensen at Imperial College London, Paul James at the University of Exeter, Madeline Steck and Hannah Schmidt at the University of Florida, and students Helen Saar and Nermen Ghoniem from the University of Copenhagen.
What does the Labster iGEM package include?
The package contains 15 simulations that we have scaffolded into 3 levels: 4 simulations relating some basic lab practice and biology, 4 simulations covering the central dogma of molecular biology and 8 simulations that really home in on those cutting edge molecular techniques and concepts that would give any team a competitive edge.
We are really thrilled to have our simulations as part of the iGEM learning path and can’t wait to hear how they help teams towards success.
Good luck to all participating in iGEM 2018 from the Labster team!