The science of small yields big rewards

University of Lethbridge chemistry professor Dr. Hans-Joachim Wieden may work on the tiniest bits of matter, but his research is yielding big things – both for synthetic biology and for U of L students.

Wieden's research program is focused on understanding how antibiotic drugs disable the function of ribosomes. These organelles are the largest units in a bacterial cell, and they synthesize proteins critical to cellular survival. Impeding the ribosome function essentially shuts down a bacterial cell, preventing it from wreaking havoc in the body.

To understand the nuances of this process, Wieden says he's "eavesdropping" on cells by observing molecular processes at the atomic scale and then rendering them in 3-D using computer modeling techniques.

While it may sound theoretical, the research has very practical applications, he explains. "If you understand it, you can reprogram the bacteria for whatever you want it to do."

Eventually, bacteria could function as tiny "machines" of a kind, useful for a wide range of research, medical, industrial and environmental functions.

Genetically engineered biomolecular machines fall under the rubric of synthetic biology. It's a fascination for Wieden and he's committed to introducing this growing research area to students at the U of L.

For the last three years, Wieden has been the faculty advisor for an undergraduate team that competes at an international research competition called iGEM. Created in 2003, the event is held annually at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. Each year, about 100 teams from top-notch universities participate.

The U of L gives the iGEM team dedicated lab space to carry out their research, but it's up to them to figure out the project logistics. To gather the resources they need, students must canvass local businesses to find sponsorship dollars.

"I'm trying to encourage self-guided learning with a spirit of entrepreneurship. They have to find the money to do it," Wieden explains. While he's available to lend his expertise, "I'm just guiding them."

For the students, iGEM is more than an extracurricular activity – it's a tremendous undertaking that challenges students on many levels. In the course of the year-long project, students learn how to run a laboratory, conduct research and find funding – skills they can use either in industry or academia down the road. This offers a hands-on experience that Wieden wishes he'd had.

"I set out to give the students the opposite experience I had as an undergraduate," he says.

While the experience of competing allows U of L students to travel and meet researchers from around the world, the competition really takes place at a molecular level. 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 molecular structures the students create are designed for a wide range of real-world purposes. Two years ago, the team engineered bacteria to digest hydrocarbon compounds in tailing ponds in the oil sands and earned gold for their efforts. Last year's team engineered a nano-sized compartment in the unstructured "soup" of bacterial cells in order to store certain genes.

"This molecular structure will be a useful tool for other synthetic biology researchers," Wieden explains.

Winning gold again this year, 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 cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) that has photosynthetic properties when exposed to sunlight.

"These projects are leading-edge science that has social relevance," Wieden says.