“When you’re faced with the entire living kingdom as a materials library, what do you design?” That’s the way Wired magazine describes the challenge at the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), the premiere undergraduate synthetic biology competition held at MIT Oct. 29-Nov. 2.

iGEM winners, a global group.

Rainbow-haired iGEM winners, a global group.

The Wired story, written as a first-person account by a friend of the winning team, describes arriving at MIT with the crew from the UK: “seven rainbow-haired undergraduates who spent their summer engineering a new kind of E.coli that secretes a palette of seven colors, christened E. chromi after a tense online vote.”

IGEM began in 2003 as a month-long Independent Activities Period (IAP) course where students designed biological systems to make cells blink. In 2009, more than 110 teams, including 1200 participants, took part. Last summer these student teams began working at their own schools—using a kit from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts plus their own inventions—to build biological systems and operate them in living cells. Essentially they customized bacteria to do their bidding.

Curious? Check out iGEM ideas from the winners: