Hosted annually by MIT, the iGEM competition gives entrepreneurial biotech students a chance to test their mettle. The goal is to set up a mock biotechnology start-up company — from the laboratory and investment capital to a marketing program — and to do it all rapidly and on a shoestring budget.
Two years after bringing home the iGEM gold, the Technion team is once again participating in the competition. The team is led by Rebecca Feldman, who became so energized after hearing a report on the 2012 iGEM competition that she took the lead in building a new team to travel to the U.S. in the fall and hopefully bring home another gold medal.
“I became really excited about this competition,” said Rebecca, who graduated from the Technion in June. “It touched on my chief research interest, and I also liked the team and community aspects.”
Student teams are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer. Working throughout the season, they use these parts and new parts of their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells. Successful projects produce cells that exhibit new and unusual properties by engineering genes together with mechanisms to regulate their expression. The team of a dozen Technion students spans multiple disciplines, including business management. After “lots of twists and turns,” the team designed an artificial genetic circuit inside a bacterium that detects toxic mercury and specific allergens in food. They used non-pathogenic E. coli bacteria, which is easy to grow and manipulate, and inserted genes that cause the bacteria to turn green when they detect even very low concentrations of toxins or allergens, Rebecca explained, adding that they have “high hopes” that the judges will find their work gold-medal worthy.
When Rebecca was 17, she traveled to Israel on a summer youth tour and immediately realized that this was where she wanted to live. Two years later, she returned, intending to stay— and she has. She volunteered for military service, even though she was exempt, and was placed in the technology division. Here she was exposed to many science and engineering graduates from the Technion and other universities, and became intrigued by their knowledge. Remembering her love of biology in high school, she decided to study biotechnology. And after meeting her future husband in the same unit, who was a happy graduate of the Technion now working at Intel, there seemed to be only a single choice for a university.
No decisions have been made about her next step after graduating, Rebecca said. She may take some time off and then return for an advanced degree, furthering her interest in genetic engineering. But by fall, she’ll be leading the Technion iGEM team, one of 245 international teams and one of two from Israel. Ben Gurion University of the Negev is also sending a team. The two Israeli teams generated their ideas separately, but will rely on each other for refining them.
There will also be outreach efforts. One of the most exciting, said Rebecca, is what’s tentatively called “Synthetic Biology in Three Languages.” The goal is to use science as a common thread to strengthen ties between Haifa’s Israeli and Arab populations; one of the iGEM team members, Faris Horani, is an Arab student who can work on the Arabic language aspect. Other efforts include an initiative to help prepare high school students for next year’s iGEM high school competition.
But whatever the 2014 iGEM team accomplishes, it’s already a success. A new team for 2015 is almost ready to pick up the mantle.