It all started with a brawny, tattooed building contractor with a passion for exotic animals. He was taking biology classes at City College of San Francisco, a two-year community college, and when students started meeting informally early last year to think up a project for a coming science competition, he told them that he thought it would be cool if they re-engineered cells from electric eels into a source of alternative energy. Eventually the students scaled down that idea into something more feasible, though you would be forgiven if it still sounded like science fiction to you: they would build an electrical battery powered by bacteria. This also entailed building the bacteria itself — redesigning a living organism, using the tools of a radical new realm of genetic engineering called synthetic biology.
A City College team worked on the project all summer. Then in October, five students flew to Cambridge, Mass., to present it at M.I.T. and compete against more than 1,000 other students from 100 schools, including many top-flight institutions like Stanford and Harvard. City College offers courses in everything from linear algebra to an introduction to chairside assisting (for aspiring dental hygienists), all for an affordable $26 a credit. Its students were extreme but unrelenting underdogs in the annual weekend-long synthetic-biology showdown. The competition is called iGEM: International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition.