The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) is the premiere undergraduate Synthetic Biology competition. This year, the Grinnell team — students Alex Aaring '13, Qimeng Gao '13, and Nora Kostow '13; and their faculty adviser, Lisa Bowers, assistant professor of biology — earned the chance to compete in the international iGEM competition held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At the beginning of the summer, teams receive a kit of biological parts. Using the kit and new parts of their own design, they build biological systems and operate them in living cells. At Grinnell, the students did their research as a Mentored Advanced Project.
"To choose our project, we read articles and looked at what previous teams had done," says Kostow. "We decided to use Caulobacter crescentus as a chassis organism for a couple reasons – Professor Bowers' post-doctoral work was with Caulobacter, plus, it’s not a well-known organism within iGEM,” she said.
The next step was deciding what would be feasible. “We didn’t want to choose a project that was too big because we wanted to be able to finish the project by the end of the summer.” said Gao. “Our project was to get Caulobacter to produce and secrete a protein we wanted.”
They wanted a project with practical uses. “There are a lot of practical applications to doing this kind of research,” Bowers said. “There are problems in the healthcare industry because sometimes bacteria release sticky substances that then coat the bacteria and make them hard to remove from surfaces. We engineered our Caulobacter to break down these sticky substances.”
Their research was not without its difficulties. “There was a genetic stop codon that caused the termination of mRNA translation into proteins. We found it about three weeks in,” said Aaring. “It was a great lesson to know research, like most of life, goes in waves. There are crests and troughs and there’s a lot of backtracking, but we found it fairly early on and managed to handle it.”
The regional competition, hosted by the Institute of Biological Engineering, had 64 teams. Despite their small team size — according to Gao, most teams have seven or eight students — Grinnell received a gold medal and was selected among the 160 teams and over 2,000 participants from 30 countries worldwide to be one of only 66 teams to advance to the international competition the first week in November.
Grinnell was the only small liberal arts school not paired with a research university to reach the international competition. Bowers said she was “incredibly proud” of what her students had achieved. Of their presentation room at the international competition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Aaring said, “There are no lecture halls that are that size in Grinnell. Not even close.”
At the end of the project, the Grinnell team contributed 12 genetic building blocks to the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. They included some that code proteins, as well as others that trigger the production of proteins—including one that triggers the production of proteins only when a specific sugar, xylose, is available.
“iGEM really is a special project,” says Kostow. “All MAPs are about creating your own project, but with iGEM, you really do something novel in 10 weeks. We created something and made it do what we wanted it to do. Other research is not always that immediately fulfilling.”
To learn more, see:
By Mona Ghadiri '11