iGEM 2011: First Thoughts

Congratulations to the 2011 University of Washington iGEM team for being the first US team ever to win the Grand Prize.  The team also shared top honors for Best Poster (with Imperial College London) and for Best Food/Energy Project (with Yale).  The team also had (in my opinion) the clearest, and perhaps best overall, wiki describing the project that I have seen in 5 years as an iGEM judge.  I only have a few minutes in the airport to post this, but I will get back to it later in the week.

The UW team had an embarrassment of riches this year.  One of the team's projects demonstrated production of both odd and even chain alkanes in E. coli directly from sugar.  The odd-chain work reproduces the efforts of a Science paper published by LS9 last year, but the team also added an enzyme from B. subtilis to the pathway that builds alkanes starting from a 3-carbon seed rather than the normal 2-carbon seed in coli.  This latter step allowed them to make even-chain alkanes via a synthetic biological pathway, which has not been reported elsewhere.  So they wound up directly making diesel fuel from sugar.  The yields aren't all there yet to roll out this sort of thing more widely, but its not so bad for a summer project.

And that's not all.

The other main project was an effort to produce an enzyme to digest gluten.  There is one such enzyme in clinical trials at the moment, intended for use as a therapeutic for gluten intolerance, which afflicts about 1% of the population.  However, that enzyme is not thermostable and has an optimum pH of 7.

The UW team found an enzyme in the literature that was not known to digest gluten, but which works at pH 4 (close to the human stomach) and is from a thermophilic organism.  They used Foldit to redesign the enzyme to process gluten, and then built a library of about 100 variants of that design.  One of those variants wound up working ~800 times better than the enzyme that is currently in clinical trials.  And the team thinks they can do even better by combining some of the mutants from the library.

Nice work.

I could go on and on about the competition this year.  The teams are all clearly working at a new level.  I recall that a couple of years ago at iGEM Drew Endy asked me, somewhat out of frustration, "Is this it?  Is this all there is?"  The answer: No.  There is a hell of a lot more.  And the students are just getting started.

Plenty of other teams deserve attention in this space, in particular Imperial College London, the runner up.  They built a system (called Auxin) in E. coli to encourage plant root growth, with the aim of stopping desertification.  And their project was an extremely good example of design, from the technical side through to conversations with customers (industry) and other stakeholders (Greenpeace) about what deployment would really be like.

More here later in the week.  Gotta run for the plane.