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Scientific Discovery Team Getting Ready to Take on the World in iGEM Competition

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

By Terri Hughes-Lazzell
Marketing Manager

Six Rose-Hulman students have been kept busy collaborating on completing laboratory work, creating a website, and designing specialty pieces for the college's first-ever entry in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, the premier collegiate synthetic biology event.

Examining Project: Juniors Devon Trumbauer (left) and Alex Krug keep track of the progress on parts of this year's project for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.

This competition will match Rose-Hulman against teams throughout the world, starting with the North American East Jamboree on October 13-14 in Pittsburgh. Past iGEM finalists have included Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology and Princeton University.

The students spent this summer developing a novel tool to facilitate research with yeast. The genetic systems don't exist in nature and the difficulty of predicting how the synthetic systems will function makes research results challenging. .

"The competition doesn't necessarily require that all parts of a device to work," says Richard Anthony, Ph.D., associate professor of applied biology and biomedical engineering and one of the team's three advisors. "Many teams don't produce a fully functional device."

So, Rose-Hulman's team has concentrated on other parts of the project, including the creation of a Wiki website, poster, and a presentation to educate others about synthetic biology. The team also hopes to enhance their entry by developing a board game for high school students, working with the Terre Haute Children's Museum of Science and Technology, and collaborating with a team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

The Wiki site describes various components of the project. The board game allows players to operate a laboratory and mimic the completion of a synthetic biology project. The Children's Museum exhibit includes stations, which allow children to use real laboratory equipment to "experiment" with synthetic biology.

Collaboration with another iGEM team is a requirement for those seeking a Gold medal in the competition. The Rose-Hulman team is helping the Norwegian team to characterize the function of one of its DNA parts, while the Norwegian team has assisted the Rose-Hulman team with a mathematical model of its system.

"The students have a lot to be proud of," Anthony says. "We have a great group of science and engineering students that bring diverse talents to the project."

Meanwhile, the students have learned valuable lessons.

"This introduced me to the idea of the aspects of collaboration," said Devon Trumbauer, a junior biomedical engineering major and iGEM team member. "The focus of my energy has been little inside the project, but more on the human practices."

Learning Lessons: Applied Biology and Biomedical Engineering Professor Richard Anthony, Ph.D., helps members of Rose-Hulman's iGEM project team prepare for the North American East Jamboree, taking place on October 13-14 in Pittsburgh.

The experience will benefit Ben Deschaine, a junior biomedical engineering major, as he examines graduate school programs in the future. "The lab experience, organizing the project, and communication -- all of these aspects will help me," he said.

The group chose to work with yeast, one of the simplest organisms with 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 used to determine yeast mating type require two or three days. Rose-Hulman's team hopes to cut that time to approximately four hours. Speeding up this process will significantly improve the pace of research progress.

Michael Evans, Ph.D., founder of Indianapolis-based AIT Laboratories and a Rose-Hulman trustee, sponsors the team. Other team members include juniors Robert French and Alex Krug, and sophomores Adam Nighswander and Kristen Schackmann. Other faculty advisors are David Goulet, Ph.D., 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.

The iGEM competition was developed by a non-profit organization in Cambridge, Mass. to create parts and tools for scientific research and to improve the scientific knowledge base. College teams were provided a basic kit of biological parts at the beginning of this summer from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts.

Top-scoring teams from October's North American East Jamboree will advance to the world championships at MIT on November 2-5.