The insider's guide to the Jerome Fisher Program at the University of Pennsylvania

Building Genetically Engineered Machines with Biological Lego

by Abheek B., M&T Class of 2016

by Abheek B., M&T Class of 2016

I’ve played with lego my whole life. When I was a young child lego was my favourite toy. I would spend hours on end putting bricks together, building bigger and bigger constructs. What I enjoyed most was designing my own novel creations; veering away from the instructions for smaller sets and doing what I wanted with the pieces. As I progressed through school, and my inchoate interest in the sciences solidified and became clearer, I realised biology was what I found most fascinating, but I hadn’t quite resolved how to satisfy my thirst for ‘building’ things. During my sophomore year of high school, I attended a lecture at a nearby university on the topic of synthetic biology and I was sold. I found the field at once both strange and wonderful.

Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field of study that sees biology as a novel technology, and applies the engineering principles of standardization, abstraction, and decoupling to it in order to make it much easier to build complex biological ‘machines.’ The field is inhabited by bioengineers, biochemists, computer scientists and mathematicians, whom all work together to create contraptions, ranging from plastic producing bacteria to 3D printers that grow organs. The iGEM competition is an undergraduate competition that started out of MIT about 10 years ago in this field of synthetic biology. At the beginning of every summer teams from universities around the world are supplied with standardised biological parts, biological ‘lego’ called biobricks, with which the teams tinker and prod the whole summer to build novel biological machines. Having been interested in iGEM since high school, when Mike M. (a now graduated M&T senior who founded the 1st Penn iGEM team) contacted me even before I had committed to the M&T program, I knew Penn was the place for me. I got involved with the competition as soon as possible, going to 2012 team meetings before being recruited for the 2013 iGEM team.

This year’s team itself is pretty interesting, comprised of six undergraduates with diverse backgrounds (including another M&T, fellow sophomore Mahamad C.): we have biologists, bioengineers and even a computer scientist. So far we are a few weeks into the summer and are concurrently pursuing two projects. After brainstorming ideas including designer bacterial immune systems, disease detectors, novel biosynthetic pathways and bacteria that reside in clouds, we decided to work on a novel method of gene silencing and also on bacterial preprogrammed pattern formation. The competition is incredibly time intensive, as we decide our own hours and typically work 12 hour days (from 9AM until 9PM,) but it is very rewarding learning how to design and complete a research project. We have worked on the theoretical foundations of the idea so far and are now progressing through the grueling lab ‘wet’ work. It is hard to tell this early which project will see completion, but both are fascinating and hopefully we’ll be able to make it to the iGEM finals this October.

Abheek is a current M&T sophomore in the Class of 2016 who hails from the UK. He has yet to declare his major in Penn Engineering, but will most likely study computer engineering or bioengineering. He has yet to declare his concentration in the Wharton School

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