Filmed on Tuesday September 16, 02014

Drew Endy

The iGEM Revolution

Drew Endy helped start the newest engineering major, Bioengineering, at both MIT and Stanford. His research teams pioneered the redesign of genomes and invented the transcriptor, a simple DNA element that allows living cells to implement Boolean logic. He is also a co-founder of Gen9, Inc., a DNA construction company, and the iGEM competition.

iGEM stands for the “International Genetically Engineered Machines” competition.

Thousands of student bioengineers from all over the world construct new life forms and race them every year at the Giant Jamboree in Boston. iGEM has been going on for ten years (2,500 competitors this year, over 32 countries, 20,000+ alumni) and gives a peerless window into the global grassroots synthetic-biology revolution, yet the phenomenon has been largely overlooked by the media, industry, and most governments.

iGEM began with college undergraduates and recently expanded to include high school teams. In making their genetic creations students get from and give back to a repository of over 10,000 genetic components called BioBricks parts. The organisms (mostly microbes) the students engineer range from frivolous (doing a stadium-style “wave”) to beneficial (detecting and eliminating water pollutants) to ingenious (increasing plant root structure to fix carbon while ensuring that no exotic genes can escape). iGEM teams "are also challenged to actively consider and address the safety, security and environmental implications of their work."

Drew Endy, a professor of Bioengineering at Stanford, was one of the creators of iGEM and is co-founder and president of the BioBricks Foundation, an organization whose mission is "to develop biotechnology in an open and ethical manner to benefit all people and the planet." He is a strong proponent of “open source” biotech and public discussion of the techniques, benefits, and potential hazards of synthetic biology.

Massively collaborative synthetic biology

Natural genomes are nearly impossible to figure out, Endy began, because they were evolved, not designed. Everything is context dependent, tangled, and often unique. So most biotech efforts become herculean. It cost $25 million to develop a way to biosynthesize the malaria drug artemisinin, for example. Yet the field has so much promise that most of what biotechnology can do hasn’t even been imagined yet.

How could the nearly-impossible be made easy? Could biology become programmable? Endy asked Lynn Conway, the legendary inventor of efficient chip design and manufacturing, how to proceed. She said, “Go meta.” If the recrafting of DNA is viewed from a meta perspective, the standard engineering cycle---Design, Build, Test, Design better, etc.—requires a framework of DNA Synthesis, using Standards, understood with Abstraction, leading to better Synthesis, etc.

“In 2003 at MIT,” Endy said, “we didn’t know how to teach it, but we thought that maybe working with students we could figure out how to learn it.” It would be learning-by-building. So began a student project to engineer a biological oscillator—a genetic blinker—which led next year to several teams creating new life forms, which led to the burgeoning iGEM phenomenon. Tom Knight came up with the idea of standard genetic parts, like Lego blocks, now called BioBricks. Randy Rettberg declared that cooperation had to be the essence of the work, both within teams (which would compete) and among all the participants to develop the vast collaborative enterprise that became the iGEM universe—students creating new BioBricks (now 10,000+) and meeting at the annual Jamboree in Boston (this year there are 2,500 competitors from 32 countries). “iGEM” stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine.

Playfulness helps, Endy said. Homo faber needs homo ludens—man-the-player makes a better man-the-maker. In 2009 ten teenagers with $25,000 in sixteen weeks developed the ability to create E. coli in a variety of colors. They called it E. chromi. What could you do with pigmented intestinal microbes? “The students were nerding out.” They talked to designers and came up with the idea of using colors in poop for diagnosis. By 2049, they proposed, there could be a “Scatalog” for color matching of various ailments such as colon cancer. “It would be more pleasant than colonoscopy.”

The rationale for BioBricks is that “standardization enables coordination of labor among parties and over time.” For the system to work well depends on total access to the tools. “I want free-to-use language for programming life,” said Endy. The stated goal of the iGEM revolutionaries is “to benefit all people and the planet.” After ten years there are now over 20,000 of them all over the world guiding the leading edges of biotechnology in that direction.

During the Q&A, Endy told a story from his graduate engineering seminar at Dartmouth. The students were excited that the famed engineer and scientist Arthur Kantrowitz was going to lead a session on sustainability. They were shocked when he told them, “‘Sustainability‘ is the most dangerous thing I’ve ever encountered. My job today is to explain two things to you. One, pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Two, optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

More Seminars


SALT Summaries Book

$2.99 Also available as a paperback book

Condensed ideas about long-term thinking summarized by Stewart Brand
(with Kevin Kelly, Alexander Rose and Paul Saffo) and a foreword by Brian Eno.

Seminar Sponsors

Will Hearst • David and Abby Rumsey • Kim Polese • Shel Kaphan • Garrett Gruener • Stream Guys Media Streaming • The Libra Foundation • Peter Baumann • Brian Eno • Greg Stikeleather • Richard and Angie Thieriot • Nion McEvoy • Cameo Wood • Susie Tompkins Buell Fund • Panta Rhea Foundation • Patrick Tufts • Ping Fu • Peter Schwartz • The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation • Dean Ornish • The Long Now Membership

We would also like to recognize George Cowan (01920 - 02012) for being the first to sponsor this series.