Student Success

iGEM team celebrates North American Regional victory

The University of Lethbridge has further cemented its reputation as a leader in the teaching and research of synthetic biology by capturing first place at the 2013 North American iGEM Regional Jamboree in Toronto, Ont. this past weekend.

The competition, held at the University of Toronto, featured teams from across Canada and the United States. The U of L team of Dustin Smith, Graeme Glaister, Jenna Friedt, Suneet Kharey, Harland Brandon and Zak Stinson will now move on to the international competition, which will be held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, Mass. Nov. 1-4.

“This certainly shows that bioengineering research and the aggressive approach we’ve taken to study this field is working at the U of L, and that the RNA Institute is playing a key role in both enabling research and training students,” says Dr. H.J. Wieden, director of the Alberta RNA (Ribonucleic acid) Research and Training Institute (ARRTI) at the U of L, the Innovates Centre of Research Excellence (iCORE) Chair of Bioengineering and faculty advisor for the U of L’s iGEM teams. “The University is poised to continue to be at the forefront of this emerging field.”

The U of L team’s project includes developing a bioengineering part that compresses genetic information – essentially working like a zip drive. Every gene needs DNA, but there is only so much DNA that will fit in a cell. This novel part may allow future bioengineers more flexibility in their work.

Additionally, the U of L team developed software that quickly determines what DNA is compatible to compress together.

“Each year we are also tasked with exploring the social implications of our project. Our team sought to ensure that our part could not be misused to hide dangerous genes,” says team member Harland Brandon (BSc’13), a first-year master’s student and Winston Churchill High School graduate. “We hypothesized that our part could be used to hide dangerous sequences, such as Ricin or Ebola, from gene synthesis companies. We then took it a step further and actually consulted with gene synthesis companies, U of L Risk and Safety Services and even a representative from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). Not only do we see our project benefitting the field, but we found through our critical analysis that the potential for misuse is not possible.”

In addition to winning the overall Regional Overgrad award, the U of L also claimed the award for best Wiki (website explaining their project).

iGEM is the premier competition for young scientists interested in the emerging field of synthetic biology, which is quickly leading to new discoveries that will diversify key economic sectors such as pharmaceutical, agriculture, medical diagnostics, clean energy and resource extraction. It also facilitates scientific research and education by establishing and operating the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, a community collection of open source biological components.

The organization promotes the advancement of science and education by developing an international open community of students and practitioners in schools, laboratories, research institutes and industry.

Earlier this year, a team of Lethbridge high school students was awarded the coveted Green Brick grand prize at iGEM’s High School Jamboree.