International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition

Brandon Wang and Andre Masella - 3A Electrical and Computer Engineering 2008
Posted on: January 20, 2010

Engineers build and improve the world. That’s pretty damn amazing. However, consider how much, as engineers, we owe to the world of the past. Without the foundations upon which we build and improve our world, applied science (engineering) wouldn’t have much science to apply.

Let’s consider the world of biology. If I wanted to engineer bacteria to target say, cancerous cells, I have no one canonical method nor standard building blocks by which I would engineer this bacteria. In short, there is no engineering methodology for such a system. Enter the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM).
iGEM is an attempt to answer the question: “Can simple biological systems be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells? Or is biology just too complicated to be engineered in this way?” Thus far, the answer to the first question has been a resounding “YES!”. Currently in its sixth year of operation, iGEM is a truly international initiative with participants ranging from Groningen to Tokyo. Its projects range from foundational to application. A small sample of some of the projects include a bacterial scavenger that searches for heavy metals then floats, an electrically controlled “LCD” made of yeast, and a bacterial Hamiltonian path solver.

This engineering approach to molecular biology has been coined the term synthetic biology. Biological systems are reduced to BioBricks, components that can be connected together in a Lego-like way. Synthetic biology is a new field of research and is wide open to discovery and ingenuity. Imagine a biological computer whose processing power grows exponentially, or a biological system that will absorb carbon from the atmosphere, or bacteria that generates electricity. Synthetic biology may hold the key to such amazing technologies.

We can be part of an initiative that may change the world in radically profound ways. Waterloo iGEM is UW’s extremely multi-disciplinary iGEM team. Regardless of what your formal training is, you can still get involved. Now, you might be thinking “but I don’t know any biology!” That’s not a problem! Consider when you go on a co-op term, how much you are required to learn on the job. Waterloo iGEM’s needs extend into mathematics, software, administration, marketing, recruitment and of course, biology.

To learn how you can get involved, visit or contact the team at