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Engineering Biology through Competition

A puzzle was conceived by two professors at MIT 2003 as part of the month long project for students – ‘could they teach bacteria to blink?’ Perhaps Tom Knight and Drew Endy had not imagined then that this interesting puzzle would sow the seeds of an annual synthetic biology jamboree scheduled to trigger celebration and enjoyment of science—the International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition (iGEM).
As the word spread, in 2004 five US universities participated in the competition that involved design of a biological system to achieve a stated goal. With time, participation in this international system biology contest swelled and 2006 saw the first participation from India.

Over the years, India has seen several innovative participants earn their laurels at the iGEM awards. The IIT Madras and IISER Pune teams, both bronze medalists of 2015, pursued their research and travel with support from Department of Biotechnology (DBT) last year.

The initiation of this support was seen in several brainstorming meetings leading to the Indo US conference on Synthetic and Systems Biology in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2014. It helped identification of strategic goals in research and training and awareness towards continued responsible innovation.

To crystallize the emerging synthetic biology community in India and create a prominent conclave of interaction, DBT announced a formal Indian Biological Engineering Competition (iBEC) competition in partnership with JNU with iGEM as its main module.

The idea was to create a stable and long-term platform for developing an Indian standard parts inventory, develop biological standards and applications, encouraging students and scientists to compete globally and introduce a new generation of students to synthetic biology and act as a feeder for future iGEMs.

Early this year, proposals were invited from teams for the iGEM competition. The response to this first call initiated in collaboration with JNU was quite impressive. The applications were independently reviewed by an expert Committee with due consideration to non-obviousness and potential applications emerging from the proposed work.

The teams selected for DBT award for participation in the Annual iGEM meeting at Boston October 27-31, 2016 were:

  • IISc Bangalore, (Dr. Deepak Saini and students team)
  • IIT Delhi (Dr. Z.A. Shaikh and students team)
  • IIT Madras (Dr. N.R.Mahapatra and students team)
  • IIT Kharagpur (Dr. A. Ganguly and students’ team)

The DBT iBEC initiative will continue in future in partnership with JNU, the next call being expected in March 2017. We look forward to greater participation by our brilliant student and scientific community and generation of novel ideas and applications, under the framework of responsible innovation.

Synthetic biology is the science of designing and building biological components towards practical applications. In the recent years, it has led to tremendous excitement and investment leading to great ideas and applications. In the United States and Europe, many leading universities and industries have come together in a big way to develop the foundation and generate biological devices and circuits towards applications in health, food, energy, environment and so on.

iGEM Giant Jamboree at the Hynes Convention Center, Boston is the largest gathering of synthetic biologists and molecular biologists from all over the world, with over 260 participating colleges from over 40 countries spanning 5 continents, including premier institutions from all over the world such as Harvard, MIT, Cornell, University of Heidelberg and several other Ivy League colleges among others.

Through the years the competition has shown us glimpses of a future in which not only have engineering and biology become virtually indistinguishable but also it overcome boundaries and borrowed expertise from several disciplines like arts and humanities to give rise to innovative ideas.

With inputs from
Mukund Thattai, National Centre for Biological Sciences