A group of undergrads made an E. coli strain glow in the presence of infection.
the Gauntlet

Students take their show on the road

U of C undergrads show off their research to an international audience

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What do ethics, glowing bacteria and revolutionary new software have in common? They were all projects presented by University of Calgary teams at the recent International Genetically Engineered Machines competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

iGEM, which began in 2003, is an annual international competition designed to involve undergraduate students in the field of synthetic biology. This year, 84 teams from 21 countries participated in the competition. Of the nine Canadian teams, seven were from Alberta. Three U of C teams represented Alberta along side two teams from the University of Alberta, one from the University of Lethbridge and Alberta's first high school team from Coalhurst. The ethics, wet lab and software U of C teams have been meeting since May to prepare for the competition.

"There's a lot of gain for the U of C, for Calgary, for Alberta and Canada from just sending representatives there to spark interest in this international community," said fourth-year health sciences major and leader of the software team Boris Shabash. "They're building a community here of people who think differently. . . It's not so much a discussion of what we've done, but it's a discussion of what we're going to do."

Shabash's software team's goal was to create a computer simulation for synthetic biologists to test their ideas virtually, rather than having to physically experiment.

"How about we add a user interface so that people that work with biology will be able to, with the click of a button, say 'This is what I want,' " he explained. "The system is complex, but the interaction isn't. That's ultimately what people want. There's always the demand for these kind of things that save resources."

The software team plans to release the software by the end of April. Shabash wants it to be available open source online so the public can help improve it. His supervisor, Dr. Christian Jacob, has already seen interest.

Biomedical science undergraduate wet lab team member Thane Kubik worked with a strain of E. coli bacteria that can detect and destroy harmful infections.

"We wanted to engineer an E. coli [strain] that could recognize specific pathogenic bacteria so the pathogenic bacteria are the bad guys, they're the ones that are causing an infection," explained Kubik. "After our E. coli would sense the presence of these pathogenic bacteria, based on their identity, it would kick out a specific anti-biotic to kill it."

By creating an E. coli strain that produces an anti-biotic specific to the infection present, the team is working on eliminating drug resistances. In this project, once the E. coli detects the infection, it feeds information back to researchers by glowing different colours, like green for salmonella or red for meningitis. This speeds up the identification of infections to a matter of minutes instead of days or weeks.

Kubik believes the U of C captured a lot of attention because the teams were student-based projects.

A panel of six judges questioned the team members, who felt they were very successful.

"It's making biology lego, basically," explained Kubik. "You're taking all of these different pieces of DNA and depending on the way that you rearrange them, you can get cool things coming out."

This is how bacteria can glow or, as in another iGEM project, act as a kidney.

"People are just exploring what can be done," explained Shabash. "There's a lot of applications being considered at that competition, but the major focus is possibilities. . . What can we do that no one has ever done before that will really excite people."

Kubik believes U of C students are fortunate because of the support from the iGEM team supervisors.

"They are so passionate about their respective fields of research and this whole notion of synthetic biology and they're also very passionate about students coming up with ideas," he said.

"There's this awesome excitement around iGEM at the University of Calgary," said Kubik. "People from different disciplines blending together, and pushing these student projects forward. . . Bottom line is we need that excitement."

Kubik and Shabash challenge students from any discipline who are interested in transferring their skills out of the classroom to get involved for next year's iGEM competition.

"The sky's the limit," said Shabash. "If you think you can make it work, get to it."