A team of University of Calgary students were placed in the gold category at the international Genetically Engineered Machine competition at MIT for their bacterial-plotter submission. The group of diverse undergraduates also won first place in the poster competition at the prestigious event.
"We were the only multi-disciplinary team in attendance [and there was] a huge aspect of computer science and engineering in it," said fourth-year biomedical student and iGEM senior molecular biologist Chris Curran. "Nobody had a physical machine that could move like we did."
The team was composed of six students from the bioinformatics, biomedical and computer science disciplines. Students were given half an hour to present their genetically engineered machine to a panel of judges and share their poster of the project.
"We had a big poster session, we answered a lot of questions about our project and had our plotter on display," explained Curran. "[The judges were looking for] whether they could understand our project by looking at the poster. We tied for first with Berkley."
Along with winning the poster contest, the team was placed in the gold category of the competition.
"There were three categories: bronze, silver and gold--which was based upon the level of participation--we took home gold for that portion," Curran said.
Their submission dubbed "E.coLisa," created pictures using ecoli bacteria and light. "When the ecoli is exposed to light, it continually creates a protein that grows bright florescent green," said Curran.
Their project featured a modified plotter which encompassed a laser that emits light onto DNA programmed ecoli bacteria which would glow when exposed to the laser frequencies.
"Bacteria have this nice property of ingesting any genetic information and making it part of their own replication machinery," said U of C iGEM coordinator Dr. Christian Jacob. The team was able to satisfy the requirement of a genetically engineered machine through the use of their programmable bacteria.
"The students decided on a project by themselves," he said. "They decided on a bacterial plotter."
The undergraduate student team was independent from the professional community in all aspects of the project, from research to design.
"The competition was brought about four years ago," said Jacob. "Three computer scientists at MIT decided to setup a competition to promote the idea of introducing engineering principles into biology. The idea behind iGEM is 'can these projects can be done by undergraduate students and whether we can apply biology to engineering principals.'"
The good part about the university iGEM team is that the students communicated with others outside of their disciplines, it's a valuable tool not only for our project but also in the workplace, explained Jacob.
The competition promoted the idea of using engineering principals and applying them to biology.
"Why can't one use engineering principals for biology?" said Jacob. "Like a set of BioBricks, each brick will have a set of specifications. In our case, our brick was a light sensing system, its input is light at a particular frequency and its output makes bacteria glow."