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KAIST Korea 2012 iGEM

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iGEM Competition?

iGEM stands for the “International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM)” Foundation, which is dedicated to education and competition, advancement of synthetic biology, and the development of open community and collaboration. (

iGEM means a challenge, opportunity, and fun experience to us. Our project was full of challenge, made us stay up all night for countless days. However, this hard work brought us great opportunities to learn a lot about this field, synthetic biology, and grow our enthusiasm toward it. We became more creative than before. We became bolder to challenges. Plus, iGEM brought lots and lots of fun during this project. We could do a lot of tryouts, the fun part, and could learn from our failures. It was not always great but now, we all know that iGEM has made us to move a step further!

What is synthetic biology?

While we’re preparing for iGEM competition, people asked us “What is synthetic biology?” several times. Each time we were asked, we couldn’t give precise answer to the question. So we talked over and over about this topic together to come up with our own concept of synthetic biology. Now we believe we have the answer for the question!

Donghui: Today, one of my friends asked about synthetic biology but I couldn’t answer it specifically. What do you guys think synthetic biology is?

SullI: I think the term ‘synthetic biology’ is somewhat paradoxical. I don’t feel comfortable with this term… Maybe it is a misnamed field of biology. Synthetic? Biology? I don’t feel any consistency between them. It is like a mutant in vast biological field since it doesn’t seem synthetic biology is a part of biology but rather close to an engineering field. It is not a natural science to me. To do something related to ‘synthetic’, scientists have to do lots of research and here, they have to consider the ‘biological theory’ part. This one is the most confusing part that makes me and other people hard to determine ‘What is synthetic biology’.

Namil: The real synthetic biology is about artificially synthesizing nucleus and coat to have a totally new creature out of nothing. The ultimate form of synthetic biology will be like a manufacturing process that each part of living organism will be regarded as bolts and nuts, which will let researchers to freely make what they want.
Today’s synthetic biology is still under progress, just about to be divided from conventional genomic engineering. However, the era of ‘Real synthetic biology’ is yet to come. To move on to the next step, the most crucial part will be standardizing functional units of life by following a promised rule. In addition, developing research tools, such as DNA synthesis or ligation, is one of the fields of current synthetic biology.

Sooin: What I find to be meaningful about synthetic biology is to create a new life by assembling networks of living organisms. This is like completing a puzzle by seeking for proper match for each piece, which I feel very fascinating. Sometimes, I am overwhelmed and frustrated by countless numbers of pieces in the puzzle called ‘Synthetic biology’. Nevertheless, when I find them the right place, let them play their roles, and look at my pieces making complete module, I can feel the catharsis.

Mandy: I think current state of synthetic biology is slightly different from the original broad definition. Originally, synthetic biology was defined as a field of new biological engineering that can make synthetic organisms from A to Z. However, currently we don't have any complete database to get each part we need. So, I think we're now endeavoring to build the database for this great future plan. Therefore what we're doing now at the lab is making standardized biological parts and reinforcing the database. Once this database has reinforced, it will work as an open source-ware to the public. This means, any person in the world can access to this database and construct their own modules, devices, and systems. Thus, synthetic biology promotes democratization of biological science.

Jihwan: Synthetic biology is like music to me. In synthetic biology, what we use is all standardized for universal usage. BioBricks such as registered parts, RBS, promoters registered in database are all certified to be following the standard of synthetic biology. In addition, the protocols of experiments used in synthetic biology are quite universal for each part.
Likewise, in music, most instruments follows standard, allowing people to use them universally. Just like we put biological parts to entangle a complete set of pathway, conductors can decide and arrange musical parts of orchestra to make a marvelous performance. In addition, the notes in music are like DNA sequences that although a single note or a single DNA base has no exact meaning, when they are arranged in a certain form, we can enjoy the masterpiece. Sometimes, few parts of the orchestra may not work well and make noise but still, I find the beauty of music in the process of managing troubles and making harmony. I can also find this beauty in synthetic biology. I believe each of us synthetic biologists is individual conductor who directs the orchestra of biological parts.

JongHo: I think synthetic biology is the third wave of the Industrial Revolution. Each Industrial Revolution of the past was about change in paradigm and this is also the case for synthetic biology. This relatively new field of biology will change the traditional idea of biological study and industry; Biology is about uncertainty. This will be changed in the notion of synthetic biology due to the ultimate goal. In the future, I think we can mass-produce biological cells and other synthetic materials using vast database of Biobricks.

Donghui: Let me talk a little bit more about uncertainty. Uncertainty used to be and still is the most important and attractive characteristic of biology. Though researchers do lots of experiments and analyze following data to get closer to general, standard information, it is still very difficult to have ‘standard’ in biology due to ‘Uncertainty’. However, engineering is quite far from uncertainty that it always requires standard units to have consistent result and product. What made us hard to answer to the question ‘What is synthetic biology?’ was that synthetic biology is too close to engineering. It even tries to remove uncertainty by designing standardized biological parts; Biobricks. That’s why we feel it uncomfortable about the term ‘Synthetic Biology’. However, this also makes us enthusiastic, challenging in this field. As I used to be an aerospace engineering major student, I would say synthetic biology is a Biological CAD program!

Finally we, KAIST iGEM team members, concluded that synthetic biology is like a Biological CAD program. CAD program utilizes database diagrams to draw a whole picture of what we imagine. For biology, it was almost impossible to have exactly the same result we imagined at first. But not for synthetic biology! This Bio-CAD will ultimately enable us to achieve what we wanted by assembling several Biobricks.

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