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Since 2005, ETH offers the course “Synthetic Biology II” and offers a student team to compete internationally in the iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machine) competition in synthetic biology (www.igem.org). ETH students with different backgrounds and from different departments form an interdisciplinary team, design independently a demanding synthetic biology project, and then work for 4 months as a team towards its successful implementation. They acquire a unique range of skills in areas such as interdisciplinary collaboration, project organization, presentation, internal and external communication, acquiring sponsoring, and assessing the impact of their work on society. The format is radically new to the teaching of life sciences yet highly compatible with the students’ professional future. ETH teams have been very successful at the international level.

Teaching the engineering of biology to students is hard. Experiments are complicated and lengthy, reagents are expensive, and many experiments are too complex to entrust to students before their master thesis. On the other end, introducing model-based design into the engineering of biology suffers from the firmly established walls between the academic worlds of engineering and life sciences, the different educational backgrounds of the involved practitioners, and the complexity of biological systems that makes modelling challenging.

The course iGEM/Synthetic Biology II is a unique attempt to teach the engineering of biology as an interdisciplinary project to students recruited from different educational backgrounds (natural science and engineering). An interdisciplinary team (typically between 6 and 10 students from pertinent engineering and natural science programs, from 3rd year BSc or MSc level) is carefully composed from a set of applicants. The team members are introduced to key concepts of synthetic biology, invited to and supported in the formulation of a suitable project, and then given the opportunity to execute their project idea along the engineering cycle of measure – model – manipulate. The students learn in a hands-on way the benefits and requirements of teamwork, collecting information, obtaining sponsoring and communicating their project.

Have you ever wondered how one could make bacteria compute? What it would take to make them remember things? Whether you could let them do things at the flick of a joystick? Let them play Minesweeper for you? Or use them to help fight cancer?

These are just some of the projects that ETH iGEM teams have tackled over the last 12 years. The easy ones : -)

iGEM is a competition among teams form universities from the entire world. The teams start by formulating a design idea and then go about implementing it in the lab and making sure that it is a good and ultimately well-received idea by talking about it to peers and public.

iGEMers are a special breed of people. They tend to be desperate in May (OMG, what have we designed?), they can usually not be found over the summer (they are in the lab), and after that, you can reliably identify them by an increasingly intense and sleep-deprived state around October, when the final presentations come up and the WIKI is about to be frozen. They also tend to be exceedingly happy on the first weekend of November, when they got their reward at the final jamboree in Boston – after they met 2’500 fellow iGEMers from all over the world, which were equally enthusiastic about their project. And in December they start to realize that they learned many things that were not on the curriculum – from teamwork to acquiring sponsoring money and how to excite others for your work – and the importance of freshly baked cookies at 3 am.