How do new scientists learn important skills and concepts? The traditional didactic lecture has fallen out of favor, with students passively listening (or texting in the back) in a top-down knowledge dissemination model. Current curricula utilize several teaching methodologies to engage students both in the classroom and in teaching labs, and there’s no substitute for research as a learning experience. This past weekend, I had the pleasure to attend the 2015 iGEM Giant Jamboree, a team-based molecular cloning biotechnology competition. As a team mentor for several years, I highly recommend this experience as a learning technique for students and team members. During the Jamboree, I observed students in command of their complex projects, further serving as a testament to the competition as a means to learn and implement important research- and microbiology-related ideas.
The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition was started 12 years ago by Randy Rettberg and Tom Knight as an intracollegiate competition at MIT. It has since expanded to be a truly international intercollegiate competition – this year’s entrants included 280 teams, with 77 from the US and 203 from Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. While it is a cloning competition, with its biobrick repository as a structured basis for construct assembly, there are many important aspects teams must address to be competitive. In addition to generating, sequencing, and characterizing “parts,” projects must explain how the teams addressed safety issues as well as contain a community engagement or education component – all the important issue grappled with by more traditional academic researchers.
Most of the teams are based out of universities, although there are also high-school and community lab tracks as well (full disclosure: I participate as a mentor for the team from a Brooklyn-based community biolab, Genspace). Through my involvement in iGEM since 2012, I’ve realized the value in a time-limited, team-based molecular cloning project as a means to teach important microbiology-based concepts. The benefits range from immediately-applicable research skills to long-term changes in conceptualization.
At its heart, iGEM is a cloning competition that uses E. coli as its workhorse. Some teams use other bacteria or yeast as their chassis, but by far the most common system is the well-characterized Gram-negative E. coli. No matter which system, students must master sterile technique, media preparations, and microbial growth curve measurement under various nutrient conditions. Advanced students guide the project and design the constructs, which are generated with a variety of assembly techniques. I observed teams using digestion/ligation assembly, homologous recombination assembly, Gibson assembly, and Golden Gate-based Rapid DNA Processing (RDP) assembly techniques. Team members quickly go from learning how these cutting-edge techniques work to using them at the bench, cementing the theory with hands-on experience.
There are a number of project categories, many of which are unrelated to infectious disease or microbiology (e.g., bacterial products as contraceptives, engineered silk proteins, and microfluidics to examine soil composition). Many groups do focus projects on concepts central to microbiology-based publications, however. During the course of the weekend, I saw bacterial batteries, microbiome-based mood manipulation edibles, antimicrobial peptide synthesis, and Dengue virus diagnosis projects. These projects cover major topics in microbiology – all of which, if not covered by this blog, are topics published in recent issues of ASM Journals. These iGEM projects introduce students to problem-solving solutions for important microbial issues.
Additionally, there is an important safety component to all iGEM projects. This is incorporated to the required competition components. Students become experts in controversial issues surrounding genetically modified organisms, and safety mechanisms are built into their biological devices. Individual teams use a mixture of kill switches, auxotrophies, and nonstandard amino acid requirements to ensure their microbes remain contained. Team members must engage in public outreach as part of the human practices requirement, to learn and address community concerns regarding synthetic biology safety.
Provacative issues in the academic community are also actively discussed in the iGEM community. The concept of dual-use research - often discussed on this blog - is heavily emphasized as teams generate parts that may originate from microbial virulence factors or other genes that have dangerous potential. One of the program sponsors is the FBI, who this year spoke specifically on dual-use research, including explanation of the Australia Group treaty. This year, students heard from FBI special agent Ed You and Department of Homeland Security representatives regarding governmental regulation of some of the same types of research the students are performing.
The competition serves as a valuable promotional tool for many job alternatives to academics. Many of these academically gifted students will eventually attend graduate school. During the awards ceremony this year, iGEM President Randy Rettberg charged the students to be leaders in academia as they considered their future. But with an entrepreneurial award and introduction to several governmental employees, the graduates were also exposed to several nonacademic alternatives. In fact, several teams have spun their iGEM projects into biotechnology start-ups and subsequently successful companies, including Synbiota, Experiment.com, Amplino, and last year’s animal-free milk-producing team, Mufrii.
Given the time constraints, many teams are unable to flesh out their conceptualized finished products – which are quite ambitious, if you look over the team wikis. Nevertheless, even less experienced high-school teams are able to compete and explain sophisticated concepts by the end of the competition. From speaking with members at various stages in their training, iGEM was both a means to learn microbiology-based skills, and to implement those skills and high-level concepts toward a time-constrained project. As a student in college years ago, I watched my engineering-major friends entering team-based competitions like the ASCE Concrete Canoe competition or the ASME/FIRST Robotics competition. The iGEM competition therefore helps students (and community lab members, but that’s another story) in one final way: to have fun and feel a sense of accomplishment while working with their team.
Were you at the iGEM competition? What were your thoughts? We’d love to hear instructor and student perspectives – leave a comment to start the discussion below!
-- Julie Wolf
Photo credits: Author's collection, iGEM from above 2014