A team of UBC undergrads recently won a gold medal for their biosensor technology at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This is the first time a team from UBC has participated in the contest that draws more than 100 teams internationally.
“I am extremely impressed by our students’ performance,” says Eric Lagally, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering who founded the team and is its faculty advisor. “After forming just a few months ago, the team has demonstrated remarkable cohesiveness, dedication, maturity and ingenuity.”
iGEM, launched at MIT in 2003, is widely recognized as the leading undergraduate learning opportunity in synthetic or engineered biology. Projects have ranged from banana- and wintergreen-fragranced bacteria to an arsenic biosensor. This year, more than 100 teams from 20 countries will participate, including 10 teams from Canadian universities.
“We were a glaring exception among Canadian universities because we had never participated in this premier competition,” says Eric Lagally, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering who founded the team and is its faculty advisor. “When we announced plans to enter iGEM, it tapped into a lot of latent interest.”
The team was made up of [then] first- to fifth-year students in disciplines that include microbiology and immunology, chemical and biological engineering, and computer science. iGEM organizers give competitors a kit of genetic material that can be inserted into E. coli, a well-studied model organism for operating and designing genetic circuits.
After more than 6,000 hours of research work over the summer, the team has produced the E.coli Traffic Light, a biosensor signaling mechanism operating in E.coli (still being tested at time of publication).
Traffic Light is a whole-cell biosensor – a machine built inside a single living cell – that measures concentrations of substances at finer levels than previously available. Students manipulated DNA and RNA in E. coli cells to detect levels of a sugar added to the medium used to grow the cell. The technique causes the cell to fluoresce green in response to a low level of sugar, amber for a medium level and red for highest levels of sugar. Research problems included triggering the cell to fluoresce at the correct level and getting the non-relevant colours to stop fluorescing so the appropriate one would be clearly visible.
Lagally believes the work has the potential to be broadly significant – the research is entered in the iGEM category of “potentially fundamental advance.” Applications for the technology include detecting heavy metals for environmental analysis or finding the earliest signs of cancer or other disease.
The team was formed with a UBC Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund grant of $36,800. Lagally and co-advisor Joanne Fox, an instructor in the Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory in the Michael Smith Laboratories, held a first meeting in October 2008 to determine level of interest – 40 students showed up. The ensuing selection process looked at academic calibre, research skills and student commitment.
“Students are hungry for real-world applications of research where they can get real results,” says Lagally, also a member of the Michael Smith Laboratories. “They’re eager to tackle a problem that has no immediate solution.”
“There were a few times when we were having a lot of trouble getting things working that I had the urge to roll up my sleeves and dive in,” says Paul Jaschke, graduate student advisor to the group.” But I’m glad I didn’t – the students wouldn’t have learned as much as they did if somebody else figured it out for them.”
Jaschke says the iGEM team experience is similar to grad school but with a twist: students had an opportunity to design and manage their project from the ground up, which many grad students don’t get to do.
Team member Amelia Hardjasa doubts there is another venue open to undergraduates that is as encouraging and supportive of self-directed work and organization.
“iGEM has definitely been a better introduction to the research world than anything else I’ve undertaken,” says Hardjasa, a sixth-year student pursuing a double degree in microbiology and classics. “One thing it’s certainly shown me is that research is not easy, but it is incredibly rewarding and I don’t think I’d ever be able to cut it out of my life completely.”
Fellow team member Eric Ma, a fourth-year integrated sciences student, says the best part of the international competition is the opportunity to exchange ideas with the best and most motivated individuals worldwide.
“Going through this has told me I’m ready for a PhD, hopefully in an applied field relating to cancer treatment and diagnostics,” says Ma, who initiated and ran a weekly Journal Club series through UBC’s iGEM Club, created by the team.
The UBC iGEM project has been supported by Integrated DNA Technologies, an international DNA synthesis company, and by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research through a training program administered by BC Transplant Society.