A team of Harvard University undergraduate students, cosponsored by the Wyss Institute, has won a gold medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition for their personalized food engineering toolkit. Known as iGarden, the kit is designed to directly engage people in genetic engineering by giving them simple, safe, and direct control over genetically modified foods.
For instance, iGarden would allow people with allergies to engineer seeds that grow into herbs and vegetables in which the allergen proteins have been destroyed. Food aficionados could experiment by using iGarden to grow plants with customized flavors, and gardeners could customize plants by imbuing them with certain genes.
“This project really broke new ground for student research at iGEM,” said Pamela Silver, Ph.D., a Wyss core faculty member, a Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School, and a faculty advisor for iGarden. “The team didn’t just set out to do well in this competition, they also wanted to revolutionize the way bioengineering benefits people’s lives.”
Held each year at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, iGEM is a worldwide synthetic biology competition for undergraduate university students. It was founded in 2004, when just five teams competed. This year, 130 teams, representing more than 1,900 students, participated in the event.
Each student team receives a kit of standard, interchangeable biological parts at the beginning of the summer and has ten weeks during which to assemble those parts–along with others as needed–into a biological system that turns a living cell into a machine capable of performing a useful task. A gold medal is awarded to those projects judged to have met the competition’s very high standards.
The 14-member Harvard team, with the help of a plant research lab, transferred 11 new genes into a small, fast-growing plant called Arabidopsis. In the interest of bio-safety, they also designed a genetic switch that prevents the spread of modified plants into the environment.
The competition may be over, but the students aim to continue their work on iGarden. Now, with the help of a group of synthetic biology graduate students, they are further characterizing the taste and nutrition-enhancing properties of the system, while also expanding its overall usefulness.