Going for gold


December 7, 2015

As humans, a key to our species’ success is collaboration. In the field of synthetic biology, this is especially true. Building on the work of others allows researchers to explore new frontiers in ways that would be impossible on their own. Thanks to the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM), researchers can now work with people they’ve never met—researchers like Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) master’s student Niteesh Sundaram and undergraduate junior Jordan Tick.

The iGEM Foundation is a nonprofit organization that aims to advance the field of synthetic biology and develop a community of open collaboration through education and competition. Through the iGEM Giant Jamboree Competition, undergraduate and graduate students from universities around the world are invited to use and contribute to the Registry of Standard Biological Parts—an ever-expanding collection of genetic materials that can be used to build biological systems.

“If someone wants to build a biological sensor or do an experiment in the lab,” Sundaram explains, “they can go to the Registry, look at the parts, and see how they could fit into their experiment. All it’s trying to do is document and expand the use of synthetic biology via a collegiate competition.”

The four-day-long, annual iGEM competition took place in Boston this past September and played host to more than 240 teams from around the world. The specific project a team chooses to engage in is left to the teams to decide, but participants are expected to hit a variety of benchmarks while conducting their research in order to win their desired level of award: bronze, silver, or gold.

“There is the possibility of not getting an award,” Sundaram says, “but bronze you get for contributing to the Registry. You’ve done science, you showed up, you have a poster to present at the poster session, you give a prepared talk, and you have a wiki that you’ve kept throughout the research process that documents all your work for future uses. For silver, you do a bit more.”

But according to Sundaram and Tick, the gold award—the award won by the Carnegie Mellon team—requires a considerable amount more work than bronze or silver. In addition to all of the benchmarks for bronze and silver, hopeful winners of the gold award have to prove that their work includes criteria such as collaboration with other schools, an improvement upon the projects of past years, and outreach to the public.

These benchmarks are important for winning awards, but the most important part of any iGEM project is the science the competition was founded for: the characterization of biological parts for the Registry. Everything else is left for the team to decide, and those decisions could mean the difference between bronze and gold. For this reason, most teams shy away from working on just one project.

“We had a lot of ideas for projects, but we ultimately decided on something with bioluminescence, mostly because we all thought it would be cool to make a biolight,” Sundaram says.

The 10-member team had representations from many departments: ECE, Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), Biomedical Engineering (BME), Chemical Engineering (ChemE), and Biological Sciences. As such, they chose to branch out to pursue as many projects as interested them. These projects included improving on last year’s estrogen sensor project and updating its sensor model; 3-D printing of a model of the Fort Pitt Bridge; and the development of simple, low-cost flourometers and luminometers.

While such a wide variety of projects may sound like an added difficulty, it also made for added reward.

“It’s always nice to see a bunch of different people from all different majors coming together to collaborate on a project,” Tick says. “One major can really impact another, even though they aren’t strictly related.”

In addition to the gold award, the CMU iGEM team was also awarded the InterLab Study Award, given to those who engaged in collaborative work with other labs to quantify variability in data collection.

In addition to Sundaram and Tick, the team consisted of MSE/BME senior Dominique Maccalla; ChemE/BME junior Wei Mon Lu; MSE junior Max Telmer; and Biological Sciences seniors Michelle Yu, Donna Lee and Kenneth Li, junior William Casazza, and sophomore Ruchi Asthana. The team was advised by Biological Sciences research biologist Cheryl Telmer, ECE research scientist Natasa Miskov-Zivanov, Biological Sciences/Chemistry associate professor Marcel Bruchez, and ECE professor Diana Marculescu.

Read more about the iGEM team’s project.