What makes for a good International Genetically Engineering Machine (iGEM) project?

The project should be ambitious, but not outrageous. If it can't reasonably be done by a group of students in a summer (and maybe part of the fall), save it for a Masters or PhD project.

The project should build upon what has been done before. What is known already is a map; we want to explore at the edges. We don't want to start on a project that has so many unknowns that we don't know where to begin, and have no idea how difficult it will be. You may be unwittingly dropping yourself into the "Here be Dragons" corner of the map.

The project should aim to do good with minimal risk of harm. The results of the project should be useful and/or edifying, changing lives and future research for the better. Before work in the lab begins, we explore how the project could cause harm - to people, environments, or economies. We first come up with a project plan that minimizes those risks. If our plan doesn't sufficiently mitigate the harms, we scrap the project.

If possible, the project should be interesting and useful even if parts of it fail. This is science - something always fails, or is at least a lot harder that you thought it would be. I like to have a plan B. And C. And maybe D and E. If we try and build a unicorn from scratch and can't get the horn right, hey, at least we've built a horse.

This year we've interested in biosensors - building cells that detect something in their environment and produce a signal, usually visual. Last year, Groningen brought home top honors at the World Jamboree with their Food Warden project. Their cells would detect meat spoilage and change color, letting you know it was time to go shopping.

This type of approach is exciting enough that in 2009, Cambridge won the grand prize for a project that focused primarily on providing future teams with a wide variety of pigments.

Clearly there's a lot of interest in this area - so, what's missing? We believe that there's an unmet need for fast sensors. Groningen's sensor, for example, takes many hours to produce enough color to see with the naked eye. Chemicals given off by rotting meat activates genes inside of their bacteria, producing enzymes, which only then begin to produce pigment. Hours before you get an answer is fine for many applications; not so great for others. We'd like to build parts that could make faster biosensors possible.

So, as iGEM began, we asked ourselves the following questions: (1) Can we produce lots of pigment rapidly in a cell? (2) In response to something interesting? (3) Which pigment?

Early on we became very interested in indigo, the plant dye responsible for the "blue" in blue jeans. The way it's synthesized in plants suggests it may be able to solve some of our biosensor problems, and the pigment itself is widely used in industry, so producing it in bacteria or yeast could be mighty interesting. More on that next time.

Terry D. Johnson is a Berkeley bioengineering lecturer and author. He has been co-advising Berkeley's iGEM team since 2008, and will be one of the lead judges for the North America region this year. His writings here do not necessarily reflect the views of iGEM HQ, Berkeley, or possibly himself, after further contemplation.