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Student Team Aims for Ground-Breaking Discoveries in International Scientific Challenge

July 2, 2012

IGEM Team      

Accepting the Challenge: Participating in the iGEM
competition are Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
students (from left) Adam Nighswander, Robert French,
Ben Deschaine, Devon Trumbauer, Kristen Schackmann
and Alex Krug. In the back is faculty co-advisor Richard

Six Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology students have accepted the scientific challenge of providing ground-breaking improvements to yeast's maturation process as part of their entry in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition--the premier collegiate synthetic biology event.

Yeast, one of the simplest organisms, has cells that have a nucleus containing chromosomes that resemble those found in humans. These cells divide in a similar manner to human cells and share many other basic biological properties. This makes the cells valuable for basic biological and medical research.

There are two mating types of yeast, a and alpha. Knowing mating type is essential to yeast research, but the current processes to determine yeast mating type requires two or three days. Rose-Hulman's team hopes to cut the time to approximately four hours. Reducing this process would give scientists more chances to make valuable laboratory discoveries.

The students' work has two important advocates: Michael Evans, Ph.D., founder of Indianapolis-based AIT Laboratories and a Rose-Hulman trustee, and Richard Anthony, Ph.D., associate professor of applied biology and biomedical engineering. Evans is providing financial support for the team's participation in iGEM for the next four years. Anthony is one of the project's three faculty advisor promoting the educational benefits of this competition.

"Synthetic biology is a growing area that requires true interdisciplinary work by involving science and mathematics. You need both to make it work," stated Anthony. "Synthetic biology is one of the most impactful new disciplines and it fits perfectly at Rose-Hulman. Problems these students will be working on in many disciplines may be addressed by synthetic biology."

The iGEM competition was developed by a Cambridge, Mass., independent non-profit organization to create parts and tools for scientific research, and to improve the scientific knowledge base. College teams were provided a kit of biological parts earlier this summer from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.

Rose-Hulman's team, consisting of juniors and sophomores, prepared for the competition through lessons learned in Anthony's entry-level synthetic biology course. Then, students spent the past month designing the genetic circuit that controls the activity of genes. This will play a key role in decreasing yeast's maturity time in laboratories. The team's work will move to the laboratory this month.

"I like the idea of trying to solve problems and helping people by using synthetic biology," stated Ben Deschaine, a junior.

Alex Krug, a junior, added, "This is a great opportunity to explore a relatively new discipline. I'm getting valuable hands-on experience."

The iGEM project has provided the first group research experience for sophomore Kristen Schackmann. Other team members are Adam Nighswander, a sophomore, and juniors Robert French and Devon Trumbauer. The students were selected by Anthony and other faculty advisors David Goulet, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of mathematics, and Yosi Shibberu, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics. Mathematical modeling is part of the design cycle in synthetic biology and an important part of the competition.

Rose-Hulman's team will compete in the North American East Jamboree on October 13-14 at the Institute of Biological Engineering in Pittsburgh. Top-scoring teams will advance to the world championships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on November 2-5.