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University of Washington wins iGEM 2011

Rachelle Dragani

The student team won this year’s international synthetic biology competition by engineering bacteria and enzymes to create diesel fuel, breakdown gluten, and attract metals.

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A student team from the University of Washington (UW) took the top prize at this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) synthetic biology competition.

Surviving the preliminary cuts at regional competitions, more than 160 teams gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on November 5-7 to compete in the iGEM 2011 World Championship. The event capped off months of research, frantic hours in labs, and countless group collaboration meetings for these synthetic biology students from Asian, European, and the American universities.

A student team from the University of Washington (UW) took the top prize at this year’s iGEM synthetic biology competition. Source: David Appleyard/iGEM

“It was really interesting to see some of the synthetic biology projects and what the other teams had done, especially at the international level, since those were all the final cut,” said Sydney Gordon, a member of the winning UW team.

The UW team, made up of 23 undergraduate students working with graduate and faculty advisors, won the competition with their “make it or break it” themed project. In their winning entry, the students engineered a bacterium to create diesel fuels, an enzyme to breakdown gluten, and vectors to create magnetic Escherichia coli.

Specifically, in the “make it” section, the UW group created a strain of E. coli that converts fatty acid synthesis intermediates into alkanes, hydrocarbon molecules that are the main component of diesel fuels. Then, in their “break it” section, the team reengineered an enzyme to increase its gluten-degradation potential, developing a pill that can help break down gluten in gluten-intolerant individuals. In addition, the team extracted 18 genes from a magnetotactic bacteria and inserted them into E. coli to magnetize the bacterium.

Second place at the competition went to a team from Imperial College London for their project to engineer bacteria that accelerate plant root development in an effort to combat soil erosion. The increase of global soil erosion is leading to the desertification of important regions throughout the world.

Third place went to a team from China’s Zhejiang University (ZJU-China) for their biofilm stratification expression system. In the project, the team developed biofilms expression systems for a variety of applications including oxygen concentration and fuel production.

This past summer, the teams that registered for this year’s competition were given a kit of standard biological parts to engineer tools that could be used in the human cell to solve a variety of problems. While the workload was manageable in the summer, once classes started in the fall, the students had to use their time effectively, according to Gordon.

“It was tough doing the work and missing school but it was completely worth it,” said Gordon.

But for many of the iGEM temas, the ride doesn’t stop with the jamboree. For instance, the UW group is still focused on the research, thinking about trying human gastric samples for their gluten-breakdown pill, and hoping to publish a paper soon.

“I hope the project can continue for a long time. I hope that once we graduate, people keep working on it, and I think they will because it is really so promising,” said Gordon.

At the competition, teams were awarded medals in different categories in addition to the grand prize. Other winners included:

  • Yale University and UW for Best Food or Energy Project,
  • University of Calgary for Best Environment Project,
  • MIT for Best Health or Medicine Project,
  • Cornell University for Best Manufacturing Project,
  • Brown University & Stanford University and ZJU-China for Best New Application Area,
  • University of California, Davis for Best Foundational Advance,
  • Boston University & Wellesley College Software for Best Software Tool,
  • ETH Zurich for Best Information Processing Project,
  • ArtScienceBangalore and the University of Edinburgh for Best Human Practices Advance, and
  • UW and Imperial College London for Best Poster.

Keywords:  iGEM synthetic biology