iGEM team claims gold

A group of University of Lethbridge undergraduate chemistry, biochemistry, biology and neuroscience students has been rewarded with Gold Standing at the 2010 International Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM).

This is the third gold-level victory for the 18-person synthetic biology research group, which competed against 128 teams at an event held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Boston, Mass.

The U of L team's project involved the design of a petrochemical-eating bacteria, which they proved could be used to help clean up water in oil sands tailings ponds. Their effort, which was supported by a $20,000 grant from the Oil Sands initiative, furthers a biological solution to improve the environmental sustainability of Alberta's oil sands bitumen extraction, upgrading and refining.

"The iGEM jamboree was the perfect conclusion to our six months of hard work," says team member and lab supervisor Justin Vigar. "It was a life-changing experience to be able to present our results on a world-class stage at one of the most prestigious, innovative universities in the world. To compete in the iGEM competition is an honour in itself, but to achieve a gold medal standing while working on a project that is very relevant to our province and country is indescribable."

"To even get into the iGEM competition is tough, but to further ensure that the team project is proven to work and has promise for further research, is even more difficult," says Dr. Hans-Joachim Wieden, the team advisor and a researcher in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

A $34,000 undergraduate research grant from Alberta Innovates Future Technologies played a major role in allowing the team to participate in the competition. Still, it was incumbent upon team members to raise further funds to support the project.

"Motivated by their research objective, the students raised more then $62,000," says Wieden. "They also had the opportunity to run their own research lab, with all the problems and rewards associated with it."

Wieden, who was also nominated by his fellow researchers to judge at the competition, says the team went above and beyond the event's requirements. Not only did they excel in designing and executing the project, but their production of documentation on the ethics, public awareness, business potential and social implications of their research was very well received. The team also worked with an artist to produce a unique four-chapter DVD of music based on the data, which brought their research into the creative world.

With the co-operation of Dr. Will Smith in the Faculty of Fine Arts (New Media), who created musical phrases and sounds based on the graphs, data and photographs of the group at work, the team produced a giveaway DVD representing the four phases of their research. No team had ever done this before, and it was played for about 1,300 people at the final meeting.

Vigar says the team left the jamboree with many friends from around the globe, which in the future he hopes will spark international collaborations.

"The synthetic biology/iGEM community is one of the most exciting and rewarding communities to be involved in," says Vigar. "Participating in iGEM has given me more experiences than I could have imagined, and I hope that iGEM continues so that future students can have the same experiences that I, and others in our group, had."