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Civic Impact

What all the cool kids are into now: Genetically engineered machine contest here

At last year's international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition, one group of college students entered the contest with a bit of synthetic biology that broke down glutens into sugars in the stomach, potentially defeating their harm to the gluten-intolerant. Then the project came to the attention of a pharmaceutical company.
 
"They looked at the students' project and decided it was better than the product they had spent millions of dollars developing," reports Tom Richard; the students' project has since become part of the company's research protocol.
 
That's the great potential of these synthetic biology creations, says Richard, a Penn State professor of biological engineering who led a team, and helped organize, the eastern North American regionals of iGEM at Duquesne University on Oct. 13 and 14. Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pennsylvania and more than 35 other teams with 275 undergraduate students from Canada and the U.S. also competed.
 
Richard has seen undergraduate team projects with practical applications in medicine, nutrition, energy and the environment, plus games and puzzles. Biological mechanisms can map the most efficient route among stores for deliveries more easily than can computer programs. His PSU team developed a test device that signals whether the body's normal response to oxygen shortage -- creation of more lactic acid -- had started properly or not.
 
Ideally, more projects will turn into ideas businesses can use, he adds. iGEM has just started an entrepreneurial division to match venture capital with students' projects.
 
"The biology is something that has taken our civilization a long time to figure out," says Richard, "but once we figured it out, it's not so complicated." In fact, iGEM has also just begun a high-school division. About 40 high-school students from seven high schools in the Pittsburgh region and across the state attended the competition.
 
"Hopefully some of these schools will have teams competing next spring," he says. "It's a fantastic hands-on science and engineering project for high school students. Most high schools don't teach engineering. Engineering is about design and making things. We're really excited to be able to push science into high schools. We know that in our society, to be successful over the next 100 years, we have to create more people excited by science, technology, engineering and math subjects."
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Tom Richard, international Genetically Engineered Machine Competition
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