iGEM 2009: In the thick of it.

I am sitting in the Stata Center at MIT taking a breather from serving as a judge at International Genetically Engineered Machines 2009 Jamboree.  There are 110 teams here, with over 1200 students from around the world showing off their projects with great enthusiasm.  As we have a full day left to go before the deliberations begin I won't divulge yet how specific teams are doing.  But I have to say I am pleased.

iGEM is, at its core, an experiment.  As the wiki says, the teams will "all specify, design, build, and test simple biological systems made from standard, interchangeable biological parts."  Of course, as there aren't yet any standard, interchangeable biological parts, the students are inventing as they go.  And inventing is slow, arduous work.

The most impressive talks I have seen this year do not represent giant leaps forward in new biological technologies (though some of the projects are real steps forward in that regard).  Rather, I have been pleasantly surprised that many teams took up the challenge of improving or better characterizing parts that were already in the registry.  Many of those parts don't work as advertized, or do not have enough data in the registry to know how they really work.  That will slowly get fixed.

That it will take time to get all this working can make the differences between the annual Jamborees appear slight.  Thin film semiconductors themselves took decades to get working, and even then those systems were built on top of a good century and a half of practical experience with electricity and then basic electronics.  iGEM is attempting to squeeze all that effort into just a few years.

I am put in mind of W. Brian Arthur's work on the dependence of innovation on the availability of components.  Here is a recent review of his book, The Nature of Technology. Historically, and theoretically, the complexity of technological artefacts tends to increase in leaps and bounds as components are combined in new ways, and then combinations then serve as components for the next generation of innovation.  But first you have to have functioning components. 

Drew Endy asked me yesterday if I thought we were stuck in a rut.  Nope.  Just stuck in reality.