On Halloween weekend, one hundred and twelve teams from 26 countries showed up at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Jamboree, an undergraduate competition hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They presented, on posters and in PowerPoint presentations, the results of their efforts to do synthetic biology — to build bacterial machines using artificial gene parts. Some tried (and a few succeeded) to engineer bacteria that can deliver drugs, detect land mines, talk to yeast, count, and smell like rain. Other teams invented the software and laboratory tools needed for engineering life.
One team, however, stood out like a parka in Tijuana. And it wasn’t because this team did exceptionally well (which it didn’t) or because this team built a machine that actually works (which it did).
No, this team left the hundred or so of us in the audience speechless at the end of its presentation because this team wasn’t made up of ten or more students from universities like Harvard and Heidelberg. This team was just one person: an 11-year-old boy named Gabriel See.
I don’t know how Gabriel found out about the competition, but somehow, he got it in his head last spring that he wanted to compete, and so he asked one of his professors — he takes mathematical biology courses at the University of Washington — for a project. He ended up building and programming what’s called a Liquid Handling System — basically, a pipetting robot — out of programmable Legos. Of course, it’s not nearly as high-tech as the commercial ones, but with a price tag of about $700 compared to as much as $10,000, it’s not a bad do-it-yourself solution for a genetic engineering team on a budget.
Unfortunately, Gabriel didn’t make it to his own presentation. He planned to fly out from Seattle on Saturday, but apparently he got so anxious about the competition he made himself sick. He did, however, send over a video of his presentation, which he filmed wearing yellow pajamas and sitting on his “Hello Kitty” bedspread. On top of his desk sat a lamp-sized contraption with a tray of liquid-filled wells and a giant Lego claw.
“Let me turn on BioBrick-o-Bot and you can see it in action,” Virtual Gabriel said. And the thing actually dipped its pipette in a well, sucked out some blue-dyed water, squirted it into another well, and even rinsed the tip in a little petri dish bath of distilled water. On the second go-round, it veered a bit off course and Gabriel had to give it a little nudge. But since I never built anything cooler than a Lego Christmas village, I’ll cut him some slack.