Excelling on the world stage

Learning from the best – that’s exactly what a group of research-focused students is doing at the University of Lethbridge. 

Members of the U of L’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team are part of a phenomenon that began 10 years ago as a course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Today, the annual iGEM contest is the world’s leading undergraduate synthetic biology competition – and each year, U of L students regularly rank among the top iGEM teams worldwide. 

An emerging field, synthetic biology sees cells, enzymes and metabolic pathways as more than biological entities; they’re sophisticated parts that can be programmed like machines to perform specific activities. As a result, research in synthetic biology is opening up remarkable possibilities in such sectors as agriculture, pharmaceutical, medical diagnostics, clean energy and resource extraction. In 2011, for example, U of L students developed a petrochemical-eating bacteria that could be used to help clean up water in tailings ponds, a discovery that placed the University’s iGEM team among the top 16 competitors in the world, alongside students from Harvard University, MIT, the University of Washington and Johns Hopkins University.

This October, the U of L’s iGEM team once again demonstrated its strong innovation abilities. In addition to creating a bioengineering part that works like a zip drive, compressing genetic information, the team developed software that rapidly determines what DNA sequences are compatible to compress together. These inventions, which will allow future bioengineers more flexibility in their research, captured top prize in the 2013 North American iGEM Regional Jamboree held in Toronto. Moreover, the first-place finish secured the team – made up of Dustin Smith (BSc ’13), Graeme Glaister, Jenna Friedt (BSc ’11, MSc ’13), Suneet Kharey, Harland Brandon (BSc ’13) and Zak Stinson – a spot in the international iGEM competition at MIT in November, where the team claimed two prominent awards.

iGEM students are representing the U of L on the world stage. Back row (L-R) Harland Brandon (BSc ’13), Dustin Smith (BSc ’13), Graeme Glaister, Zak Stinson and Dr. H.J. Wieden (faculty advisor). Front row (L-R) Suneet Kharey and Jenna Friedt (BSc ’11, MSc ’13). (Photo by Leslie Ohene-Adjei)

Providing students with the opportunity to compete against teams from around the world is just one way iGEM benefits its participants, says U of L biochemistry professor Dr. Hans-Joachim (H.J.) Wieden. Considered the driving force behind the U of L’s iGEM teams, Wieden serves as the students’ advisor and coach. He is also a highly respected researcher in his own right. 

Director of the Alberta RNA (ribonucleic acid) Research and Training Institute at the U of L, Wieden was also recently appointed the Innovates Centre of Research Excellence (iCORE) Chair of Bioengineering. Funded by a $2-million investment from Alberta Innovates-Technology Futures, the role enables Wieden’s research team to study how biological systems can be engineered to achieve breakthroughs in materials science, chemistry, biochemistry, health and nanoscience. 

“iGEM enables students to get their first taste of research,” says Wieden. “They understand the goal of the project, and learn how to think outside of the box, troubleshoot and apply their knowledge to create scientific discoveries. All of this unlocks students’ creativity.” 

What’s more, he continues, iGEM cultivates students’ entrepreneurial potential. The teams manage their own projects and raise funds to support their work, as well as learn how to communicate effectively and connect their work to real-world needs. Finally, as young researchers themselves, they come to realize the importance of supporting the forward-thinking scientists of the future: high school students. 

To that end, U of L students have started iGEM teams in high schools in southern Alberta. And those high school students are following in the success of their older counterparts. Earlier this year, in fact, a team of Lethbridge high school students representing schools from across the city, won the Green Brick grand prize at iGEM’s international High School Jamboree at MIT, as well as trophies for Best New Biobrick Natural for their engineered DNA part and Best Wiki, the website used to display their project.  

Advised by Wieden as well as U of L undergraduate and graduate students, the high school team – consisting of 22 students from Lethbridge-area high schools, including Kieran McCormack, Chris Isaac, Elaine Bird, Fiona Spitzig, Yoyo Yao, Patrick O’Donnell and Katie Thomas, who represented the team at the jamboree – successfully created a longer lasting form of Oxytocin. A hormone that’s most-commonly used to aid childbirth, Oxytocin degrades quickly and soon becomes unstable, making it expensive and difficult to store. 

While such complex projects can be challenging for high school students, the research experience is invaluable, says former iGEM high school team member Erin Kelly. 

“Being on the high school team was a steep learning curve, but I learned research methods through hands-on experience and that definitely made the transition to university easier,” says Kelly. Now a second-year biochemistry student at the U of L, she serves as an advisor to the current iGEM high school team along with fourth-year neuroscience student Isaac Ward and master of biochemistry student Mackenzie Coatham (BSc ’12).

U of L iGEM students Isaac Ward, Mackenzie Coatham (BSc ’12), Harland Brandon (BSc ’13) and Erin Kelly are using their research and entrepreneurial skills to launch their own company. (Photo by Leslie Ohene-Adjei)

The trio, all former members of the undergraduate iGEM team, have used their resulting research and entrepreneurial skills to launch the spinoff company Synbiologica Ltd. Along with Brandon (now a U of L master’s student in biochemistry), and U of L neuroscience professor Dr. Gerlinde Metz and Wieden as advisors, the group is in the process of patenting their big idea – a biomedical technology that provides rapid hormone-detection results. Their idea is expected to be 93 per cent more cost-effective than traditional antibody technology, bringing the next generation of hormone detection to the research, agriculture and medical markets. 

In recognition of its scientific innovation, the Synbiologica team has earned numerous accolades. They include winning $10,000 in the South Venture Business Plan Competition and taking first place in the Tech Stream side of the Chinook Entrepreneurial Challenge, an annual business-planning competition hosted by Community Futures Lethbridge Region. The group received an additional $10,000 in cash, a one-year lease on space in the tecconnect: An Alberta centre for new commerce – a high-tech business incubator operated by Economic Development Lethbridge – plus a range of other in-kind prizes, including business consulting from MNP and ActionCOACH, and several thousand dollars worth of media services. 

“iGEM gave us the motivation and skills to explore multidisciplinary research,” says Ward, chief executive officer of Synbiologica. “And from there, we realized that we don’t have to follow the usual career route. We can create our own jobs.”