The iGEM competition has now reached such a size that, if it grows anymore, it might be too big for even the sprawling MIT campus to host. With 800 participants split across some 80 or so teams, the Kresge Auditorium is almost full and the presentations sessions needed to be spread around the wonky architecture of the Stata Center.
The competition probably won't grow the way it has over the past four years - the first one in 2004 had just five teams and seven people. But the organisers are working on the basis that the 2009 competition could be half as big again. In 2010, the organisers think there could be 180 teams and no less than 1800 students.
MIT's Randy Rettberg said the organisers are now looking at whether to move the jamboree, the focus of the competition, to a larger, dedicated convention centre and away from MIT. The growth may also mean the created of a more formal structure for the competition - hosted possibly by a not-for-profit organisation.
One of the early concerns seems to have gone away, said Rettberg in his speech as the judges deliberated over who would win the grand prize underneath the Kresge Auditorium.
"For several years, I have been explaining synthetic biology by saying we have a question to answer. Can simple biological systems be built from standard interchangeable parts and operated in living cells? Or is biology so complex that each case is unique? People, said: 'Randy, this won't work.'
"Now," Rettberg added. "The question is starting to look a little silly. It is obvious you can do this, or least the undergraduates can."
Now it's a question of scaling. Rettberg says a good size for a competition like this is 55 teams - so it might make sense to divide the contest into four main groups, perhaps picking an ultimate winner out of that. It would allow relatively easy scaling to 220 teams overall. Rettberg said he prefers that approach to regionalising iGEM. As it stands, however, the aim is to keep everything together, although the projects are already grouped into seven classifications: environment; food or energy; foundational advances; health or medicine; manufacturing; new applications; and software.
However, this is the kind of problem a lot of people would like to have. There are conference organisers who would kill for a 50 per cent annual growth rate.