An engineering approach to biological research
Petri dish/circuit image, courtesy of Ivan Morozov, VBI
EE students Matt Lux (’07) and Nalin Pilapitiya (’08) are joining other engineering and science undergraduates to design and build – to engineer – a biological system using standard DNA parts. They are part of Virginia Tech’s first team to compete in the International Genetic Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, which is organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
As stated on its website, the three-year-old competition is based on two questions: Can simple biological systems be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells? Or is biology simply too complicated to be engineered in this way?
The Virginia Tech team advisor is Jean Peccoud, an associate professor with the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. Peccoud served as one of nine judges for the 2006 competition. “iGEM invites students to imagine, engineer, and assemble a biological system that does something really cool,” Peccoud said. “Our challenge is to go beyond the ‘cool’ factor to generate significant scientific results that might be worth publishing in a scientific journal. By approaching living systems with engineering methods, we can uncover new biological phenomena that biologists may have overseen.”
The iGEM competition provides standardized DNA parts, which they call BioBricks, although teams are welcome to design their own BioBricks. The team from Ljubljana, Slovenia won the 2006 grand prize with its design of a cell system that represents a type of artificial immunotolerance. Mammals sometimes produce an exaggerated response to bacterial infections and develop a systemic infection, which can lead to sepsis, and death. The Ljubljana team designed a feedback loop in the cell signaling network that inhibits the signaling cascade at the weak spot.
The team from the Imperial College of London was first runner up with its molecular oscillator and Princeton’s team was second runner up with a synthetic sender-receiver system based on custom BioBricks developed by the team.
Participation in the effort requires that each student develop a working knowledge of all aspects of the project: modeling, computational, and biological. “This is true interdisciplinary project,” Peccoud said. “We expect the students with no life science background to work in the lab, just like we expect the life-science students to experiment with computer models.”
Lux and Pilapitiya were selected for the team in the fall semester and will be working in Peccoud’s laboratory during the spring and summer with five other undergraduate studentsfrom the departments of Biological Science and Biochemistry departments.