Earlier this month a team of undergraduates brought home a silver medal in the 2012 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. iGEM is considered the premiere undergraduate synthetic biology competition where teams design, construct and analyze novel biological systems to perform new functions in living cells.
The competition, which featured 195 teams from around the globe, took place October 12-14 in Pittsburgh as part of iGEMs Americas East Regional Jamboree. Tech’s team consisted of five undergraduates: biology majors Natalie Chilcutt, Joseph Elsherbini and Jennifer Goff as well as Mitesh Agrawal and Jennifer Boothby from biomedical engineering.
The students began work on their project this past summer, engineering a synthetic biosensor system in bacteria, inspired by the cell-cell communication process called “quorum sensing” studied in the Hammer lab. The students used a technique called bimolecular fluorescence complementation (BiFC) to document a response to an extracellular chemical signal in the model bacterium E. coli. The bacteria were engineered to make two halves of a naturally green fluorescent protein (GFP) that are not fluorescent independently and only interact to form a complete fluorescent protein in the presence of a defined chemical signal. This novel system has the potential to be tailored to respond to different extracellular molecules, such as toxins, metabolites and pollutants, and is designed to provide a more rapid response than traditional biosensor.
This year’s iGEM project (http://2012.igem.org/Team:Georgia_Tech) arose from a National Science Foundation-sponsored (NSF) collaborative synthetic biology project currently underway involving the Hammer lab and multiple engineering collaborators (http://www.ece.gatech.edu/research/labs/bwn/monaco/index.html). The team was supported by funding from the School of Biology, NSF as well as Georgia Tech’s President’s Undergraduate Research Awards and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.
The team is advised by Brian Hammer, assistant professor in the School of Biology, and Mark Styczynski, assistant professor in the School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering. The team is mentored by postdoctoral fellow Patrick Bardill (biology) with assistance from Ph.D. students Samit Watve (biology) and Youssef Chahibi (electrical & computer engineering). The iGEM advisory board includes additional faculty, Joshua Weitz, Eric Gaucher and Harold Kim, who have served as past advisors.