Imagine a world where no one goes hungry because food can be grown plentifully, pesticide-free. A world where diseases are easily cured or avoided. A world in which an ordinary-looking seed grows not into a tree, but a house.

Synthetic biology, which has been called “genetic engineering on steroids” by Ron Weiss, director of MIT’s Synthetic Biology Center, aims to create new organic systems that do exactly what we tell them to. Researchers place orders for existing, artificial, or altered genes with a click of a computer mouse, and those genes are delivered to their doorsteps a few weeks later. Then the researchers combine these Lego-like “bricks” of DNA to create genes or genomes not found in nature that have been engineered to perform a specific task of their choosing. The process is a lot like computer programming, just within organic material instead of computers.

Although the science is still in its infancy, members of the MSBT believe it could revolutionize the way we live our lives, from the food we eat to the air we breathe. A lab at UC Berkeley has already engineered bacteria that can help cheaply produce a once-costly medication for malaria, opening up the possibility of a cure for sufferers around the world. And the MSBT wants to go further.

Grassroots Genetics

The team meets on Monday nights in a nondescript lab on the third floor of the gleaming Undergraduate Science Building. Neat rows of white lab coats hang in an open closet filled with instruments and tools. Equations and small diagrams pepper the whiteboard. The air crackles with excitement.

The action involves selecting, designing, and building a project in synthetic biology each year to be entered into the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition at MIT in the fall. Nearly 300 teams from across the globe participate. The teams vary in size and structure, with many of the top-tier competitors coming from well-funded programs operating under the strict control of faculty advisors.

But Michigan has its own style. The team’s advisor, lecturer Marcus Ammerlaan, attends the team’s meetings, which he observes thoughtfully, quiet except to answer a question about the week’s reading or to crack a joke with a student. Ammerlaan is happy to serve as a sounding board and resource, but it’s the students who decide what the team’s priorities and projects are.

“Advisor is the wrong word,” says Ammerlaan. “I am a facilitator more than anything. The students bring the initiative, interest, and effort. Since our project changes from one year to the next, the expertise needed also varies. We’ve called on people in a half a dozen departments, and they’ve never said no. They’ve been generous with their time and equipment.”

That means that team members choose and execute their project each year, often on a shoestring budget. It also means students have a one-of-a-kind chance to participate in a completely undergraduate-driven research project.

Leaky Promoters and Paper Doctors

Mike Ferguson (B.S. ’15) joined the MSBT in 2012 after a difficult first year at Michigan. Struggling academically and with no experience in the lab, he was finding it hard to get the research opportunity he craved—until he found the MSBT. He threw himself into the team’s work, poring over academic journals about synthetic biology for fun and meeting with other MSBT members to discuss his new findings.

During the course of his reading, Ferguson came across a common problem with DNA, something biologists call “leaky promoters.” In DNA, a promoter serves as a sort of switch: It acts as a binding site for RNA polymerase, which eventually activates a gene. In cases where the promoter is leaky, the “switch” doesn’t ever stay completely off, which means that the gene in question is always activated.

At an MSBT meeting, Ferguson and another member proposed the team work on a solution—a system that would allow the “switch” to turn both fully off and fully on. The team agreed, and Ferguson and his teammates dug through biology journals to find a way to build their “machine.”

Their months of hard work paid off. The team won gold that year, as well as an award for Best New BioBrick Part. But they weren’t done.

Encouraged by their success, the MSBT continued to work on the switch the following year, seeking to overcome some technical difficulties from their previous effort. In 2013, with Ferguson as president, the team not only won gold, but also was one of only five regional finalists from North America to advance to the world championships. It was the group’s highest achievement yet, and a legacy that the team has continued to build on.

Michigan Synthetic Biology Team members explain the process of DNA extraction to Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) camp participants. U-M's WISE Program seeks to boost the numbers of girls and women pursuing degrees in engineering, math, science, and technology. Photo by Jeremy Kuo

In 2014, the team, then led by Martin and Drew Dunham (B.S. ’15), developed a system to make cheap and effective antibodies in bacteria. One of the applications of the project is a more humane system for testing food for bacteria such as salmonella. (The current method involves using rabbits.)

This year, the MSBT is working to develop something they call “aptapaper”: a paper-based genetic switch for inexpensive disease detection in remote areas, where equipment is scarce. Think something like a small card that, when dipped in a pool of water, could detect pathogens like cholera.

Jennifer Knister, a cellular and molecular biology and biomedical engineering student and the team’s current principal investigator, is excited to see where the project takes them.

“I get the chance to design a technical application and figure out how to implement and test it,” Knister says. “This is graduate-level work in a field of biology, and I get to do it as an undergrad with way more freedom than a traditional lab.”

And while the team is well aware of fears by some that the technology could have unpredicted consequences or be used for nefarious purposes, they’re already working to keep it a positive force for the whole world.

“There are concerns, as with any new technology,” says Dunham. “But in our organization, we are constantly thinking about safety, and about using it responsibly. And ultimately, there are a lot of great possibilities for synthetic biology.”

“Synthetic biology has the potential to cure diseases, engineer better crops to produce more food, or completely reprogram us,” Ferguson says. “It’s the future.”


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