BU-Wellesley Software, a multi-school, multidisciplinary research team that addresses challenges in synthetic biology, recently won gold at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Americas Regional Jamboree in Indianapolis, Indiana. The team will now compete November 5-7 at the World Jamboree at MIT.
“They did great,” said Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE), one of the team’s advisors. “We had a large team of 19 students and six advisors spread over the two campuses, and the collaboration has gone very well.”
One of the goals of the iGEM competition, which is aimed toward undergraduate students, is to create simple biological systems from standard, interchangeable parts and operate them in living cells.
BU-Wellesley Software designed a collection of software tools that address technical synthetic biology challenges and advance the way that users interact with computing environments. Team collaborators are primarily from Boston University and Wellesley College but also include researchers from Olin College, Suffolk University, UC Berkeley, Framingham High School, and Tufts University.
The team is the first at Boston University since 2006, though Densmore had competed previously with UC Berkeley in 2008 and 2009.
BU-Wellesley Software was one of 69 teams competing at the Americas Regional Jamboree and one of 24 to take home gold. Densmore said that the ultimate goal of the team is to win “Best Software” at the world competition.
“Winning ‘Best Software’ basically means we won the top prize as a software team,” he said. “It would represent thousands of lines of code and person-hours and would be the real benchmark for our team.”
Team member Janoo Fernandes (ECE ’13) looks forward to attending the World Jamboree and was introduced to iGEM during Densmore’s course, EC311: Intro to Logic Design. Fernandes received an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) award that allowed him to work on Puppetshow, an application that assists in automating biological protocols and is one of five software tools used in the project.
“I never had a chance to work on such a large-scale, collaborative project before, so this has been a new and fun experience,” Fernandes said.
Fellow team member Craig LaBoda (ECE ’11) added that working with Wellesley has been very rewarding.
“From our collaborators at Wellesley College who specialize in human-computer interaction, I’ve learned a great deal about the user-centered software design process,” LaBoda said. “This helps us tailor our synthetic biology software for the end users through feedback at different stages in the design process.”
LaBoda, who is currently working on his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Duke University, previously studied the use of DNA microarrays for capturing and organizing DNA origami as a 2010 Lutchen Fellow.
“Ever since conducting that research, I became fascinated with DNA nanotechnology and infatuated with studying at the boundary between biology and electrical engineering,” LaBoda said. “Ultimately, these interests led me to get involved in iGEM so that I could continue exploring this interface, this time through the lens of synthetic biology.”
Over the summer, LaBoda helped develop the open source software program, Trumpet, that helps synthetic biologists design completely configurable genetic circuits. Both Trumpet and Puppetshow were built upon Clotho, a software platform for assembling synthetic biological systems designed by Densmore’s research team.
“There’s no question that we’ve all worked hard this summer to make useful tools for the synthetic biology community,” said LaBoda. “The hard part will be thoroughly describing all of our new software tools in the allotted 20 minute presentation.”
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)