Golden effort for U of L iGEM team

A group of University of Lethbridge Chemistry/Biochemistry and Neuroscience students returned from a recent international genetically-engineered machines (iGEM) conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, MA as gold medalists and with a new appreciation for teamwork, inventiveness and taking chances.

The iGEM competition is regarded as the premier undergraduate synthetic biology competition in the World. Student teams are given a kit of biological parts – called 'BioBricks' – at the beginning of the summer from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Working at their own schools, they use these parts, along with new parts of their own design, to build biological systems. They then operate these systems in living cells.

The 8-person U of L team worked on harvesting solar energy by refining what was termed a 'bio-battery', focusing on a type of bacteria called a cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) that has photosynthetic properties when exposed to sunlight.

"My iGEM experience, or my introduction to synthetic biology, began and ended with a bang," says team member Megan Torry.

"The competition was intriguing because it introduced me to a future that we cannot grasp. We have no idea of the vast number of possibilities of where the world will take us, and our future decisions regarding change. There does not seem to be an academic program that is as multi-disciplinary as iGEM. People from numerous backgrounds can come together and offer the team different perspectives and skills, further making it a University of Lethbridge goal to get more students involved."

The U of L iGEM team was one of the few composed mainly of
undergraduate students, and competed against more than 100 university teams to finish with a gold medal standing, one of 48 groups to achieve that mark.
They share their iGEM Gold Medal standing with such heavyweight universities as Stanford, Tokyo, Osaka, Johns Hopkins, Paris, and Cambridge, among others. They even outdid the incomparable Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) itself.

Team supervisor Dr. Hans-Joachim Wieden says the team did a tremendous job of making their project not only work, but also be complete enough to have other teams take an interest in their research.

"The team constructed some functional biobricks by successfully using synthetic biology to engineer an organism. We also furthered knowledge within the synthetic biology community and helped other teams with their projects. This is a lot of work, which the students take on in their spare time."

Torry and the others didn't seem to mind the time commitment or the complexity of their project. As successful as the project ultimately was, changes and chances were the order of the day to make the project work.

"Throughout the summer our project was forced to change as our team took chances again and again, and consequently were wrong, again and again. It was good that we were all too stubborn to stop showing up. I realized that being a risk taker and taking chances will expand synthetic biology because it will lead to the development of new ideas. I would suggest that anyone interested should take a chance with iGEM," says Torry.

"I have a BSc in Neuroscience, but iGEM allowed me to come to a conclusion that there are numerous novel lab procedures to expand my personal skills.

"I had to learn all of these new lab procedures, and I had to ask a lot of questions, interact, present, travel, write and develop myself over the last eight months. I was successful on a personal level because I was able to expand my talents, discover talent within myself, and see it in those working around me."

The iGEM project has evolved to become a credit course, and there is now scholarship money available for travel. As well, the group developed a business plan to further take advantage of any ideas that come out of the iGEM process.