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No Dozing Off
by Richard Saltus and Jenny Cutraro
Clad in matching team T-shirts and carrying backpacks, a dozen or so California high school students formed a circle, leaned in to touch hands, and chanted “1, 2, 3, CELLBOTS!!”
Flinging their arms skyward, they dissolved into laughter and then filed into a lecture hall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, ready to go for the gold.
Gold meant earning one of the top scores in the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), designed to fuel enthusiasm in synthetic biology—a merger of biology and engineering.
The teenagers from Abraham Lincoln High School, an urban public school in San Francisco, were jet-lagged but feeling good about their chances against 112 elite college teams from around the world.
There was, after all, a stirring precedent. In 2007, HHMI investigator Wendell A. Lim, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, had coached Lincoln High's first iGEM competitors to a stellar 6th place finish among 54 squads from prestigious colleges and universities.
This was a triumph, especially in light of Lim's initial reservations. “My first reaction was to think it would be a disaster to plop high school students in the middle of a serious research lab,” he admits. He needn't have worried.
Each iGEM team conceived and built a project using a toolbox of “standard, interchangeable biological parts”—including bits of DNA, promoters, ribosome binding sites, protein-coding sequences, plasmids, and other raw materials.
The Lincoln team, with teacher and former Genentech scientist George Cachianes, tried to harness the navigational ability of white blood cells called neutrophils and steer them to carry molecular payloads. They could imagine programming their “cellbots” to deliver drugs to specific targets.
Illustration: Peter Arkle