2013 iGEM Team Wins Gold in Toronto!

October 15, 2013

Guest post By Joe Rokicki

I woke up 36 hours ago during Boulder’s first snow storm of the year, just in time to get to DIA and catch a flight with five undergraduates, one other graduate student and one faculty member who would be representing CU at the North American Regionals of the International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition (iGEM). Now, I’m sitting at a bar in an airport in Toronto with our newly Gold Medal decorated, special award winning and world championship qualifying team and we are trying to figure out how we are going to get to Boston to compete on the world stage.

This is the story of our whirlwind, international journey from zeros to heroes.

Last spring, a team of about 20-30 undergraduates and graduate students began meeting weekly at the new JSCBB building to discus the possibilities of a newish branch of science called “Synthetic Biology”. The way I define synthetic biology is this: Traditional biology is all about pushing the frontiers of what is known. It’s about finding new pathways, new mechanisms, new enzymes, new patterns and formulating new hypotheses. Synthetic biology is something fundamentally different. Instead of pushing the frontiers of what is known about the natural world, synthetic biology is about taking what is ALREADY known and applying it in a way that nobody has ever tried before. It is about engineering biology into solutions for real world problems. The iGEM competition is a forum for undergraduates, mentored by graduate students and faculty, to spend a summer in the lab working on a real synthetic biology project of their choosing and seeing what they can accomplish in that short amount of time.

Past examples of iGEM projects are as varied as they are awesome: Bactoblood, an arsenic biodetector, resveratrol beer etc. (Descriptions of them all are online at www.igem.org.)

This year, our team decided on a project theme of “DIY Biology.” It was a hard summer of characterizing low cost versions of common lab protocols such as DNA purification and DNA gel extractions, validating methods for recycling common lab consumables such as miniprep columns and agarose gels, and developing low cost methods of homebrew, small batch enzyme production. Our team then put together a poster and a presentation and flew to the North American iGEM regionals in Toronto to see how their work would stack up against the other 52 teams from all over North America.

The reception couldn’t have been warmer. There probably aren’t many people in North America who get pumped up about new methods of low cost enzyme purification or hacking miniprep columns but the attendees at the regional competition were riveted.

One component of the project, a protein tag which reversibly precipitates in the presence of calcium, was successfully cloned, characterized and submitted to iGEM headquarters. This part (“bioBrick’’) was deemed so promising that it was awarded the “Best New Part, Engineered” award at the competition. We were the only team at the Regionals awarded this prize. The project as a whole was rated among the best in North America and a CU team, for the first time, was invited to present at the World iGEM Finals in November along with the best teams from Europe, Asia and Latin America.

I couldn’t be more proud of our team. A video of our team’s presentation and a description of their project is available on the iGEM.org website. Make sure you root for the Buffs in November and feel free to contact iGEM@colorado.edu with any questions about the iGEM program at CU.

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