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January 23, 2009
THE FIRST UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA TEAM to ever participate in the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM) was awarded a silver medal in 2008. In iGEM-2008, 85 teams competed from around the world in constructing and testing synthetic biological systems. The teams engineer these synthetic biological networks in bacteria, which then behave like engineering devices, such as oscillators, toggle switches, logical gates (AND, OR, IF, etc.), integrators, clocks, etc.
The Minnesota team of nine undergraduate and four graduate students, guided by Professors Yiannis Kaznessis (Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science) and Claudia Schmidt-Dannert (Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics), engineered two types of "smart" bacteria: one that senses its environment for different kinds of molecules and responds depending on which kind of molecule is present in larger quantities; a second one that "counts" the number of times it duplicates and commits suicide when this numbers exceeds a predefined threshold. Both of these "smart" bacteria can find applications in useful technologies, such as biofuels production and biochemical sensors.
iGEM provides a wonderful opportunity to merge engineering and biological sciences and to build biological systems that respond to our signals in a precise manner. The students of the Minnesota team are majoring in chemical engineering, molecular biology, mathematics, biomedical engienering and chemistry. Working for twelve weeks during the summer of 2008, they had an opportunity to train in interdisciplinary science at the crossroads of engineering and biology. Ten of them went to the 2008 iGEM Jamboree in Boston, MA, where they presented their work to the synthetic biology community.
The 2008 Minnesota iGEM team was supported by the University of Minnesota Bioinformatics Summer Institute (a NSF-NIH funded program), the College of Biological Sciences, the Digital Technology Center, the BioTechnology Institute, the Institute for Renewable Energy and the Environment, and the Institute of Technology.