for National Geographic News
Using bits of DNA like pieces in an erector set, synthetic biologists have created microscopic fuel cells, transformed harmful bacteria into intestinal helpers, and developed pill-size dialysis machines that patients could someday swallow.
These projects were all part of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, an annual gathering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Synthetic biologists use pieces of DNA, which they call "parts," as building blocks for useful new organisms.
It's a bit like computer programming, only instead of code, synthetic biologists add genetic material to alter existing organisms like bacteria, yeast, and even mammal cells.
iGEM teams designed and built their biological systems from the same free kit of parts, plus new parts they engineered on their own.
Their goal is the Stanley Cup of synthetic biology—a large aluminum "BioBrick" symbolizing the biological building block parts used in the competition and inscribed with names of past winners and handed on from year to year.
With difficulty, a panel of experts narrowed the 2008 field to six finalists for the Grand Prize.
The California Institute of Technology team redesigned the often harmful E. coli bacteria to fight pathogens, treat lactose intolerance, and produce essential vitamins.
"It's natural for us to envision engineering bacteria in the gut, because bacteria already live there," explained team member Fei Chen.
"Natural bacteria in the gut help us with digestion, are essential for development of the immune system, and crowd out harmful bacteria," CalTech's Doug Tischer added.
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