MSU 2017 team wins silver medal at synthetic biology competition

  • Dec 11, 2017
  • Ducat lab, outreach, future scientists
  • Future Scientists
  • By Bjoern Hamberger, Igor Houwat
A speaker at the iGEM conference
A packed hall in Boston for an iGEM presentation.
By iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight, CC BY 2.0

The International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition:

  • Brings together students from around the world to design biological solutions for some of humanity’s toughest problems.
  • Over the summer, iGEM teams design and build genetically engineered systems in fields including health and medicine, manufacturing and bioenergy.
  • The teams also contribute to the synthetic biology community by adding new parts to the growing ‘Registry of Standard Biological Parts,’ a physical and digital library of DNA sequences with well characterized functions.

MSU’s second-ever iGEM team just came back from Boston with a Silver Medal from the iGEM global competition.

The team was made up of seven students from Chemical Engineering, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Animal Science, ranging from a graduating senior to a high school student about to enter MSU this January.

Motivated by the Flint water crisis, the group set out to develop new technology for water testing: a biosensor for detecting dangerous contaminants in the environment.

Based on this unique ability to find ‘clues’ in the water, the project was dubbed ‘Shewlock Holmes,’ a nod to the microbe the students worked with, a bacterium called Shewanella oneidensis.

Shewenella is rare among microbes in its ability to transport electrons across its membranes. The team hijacked the transport system so it only turns on in the presence of a chosen contaminant. That way, it works like a smoke or carbon monoxide detector.

After successfully showing that the genetically engineered ‘Shewlock’ could detect and report hydrogen peroxide, the team then aimed to make the measurement system smaller, more affordable, and sensitive to a broader range of contaminants.

Bjoern Hamberger, one of the project mentors says, “The students built a sensor toolbox of 9 modules, each that senses a different contaminant. The modules can be exchanged like Lego bricks, so Shewenella is customized for different detection purposes.”

Shewenella team shot
The Shewlock Holmes team, from left to right: Ciara Fromwiller, Serenity Tyll, Cody Madsen, Michaela TerAvest, Danny Ducat, Noelia Bravo, Brian Amburn, Donna Liebelt (advisor). Not included: Bjoern Hamberger, Tim Whitehead.
By Shewlock Homes.

The Shewlock Holmes team also tested their project for public safety, an important part of iGEM’s ‘human practices.’

A big public concern is the possible release of biotechnologically engineered organisms into the environment. The team found that “Shewlock” could be completely inactivated by a simple drying procedure, without needing any special equipment.

Another iGEM ‘human practice’ includes educating kids and college students about synthetic biology.

The MSU team shared their project at the Michigan Science Center in Detroit, and also joined the MSU Women in Engineering Summer Camp. Additionally, they organized and hosted the 2017 upper Midwest iGEM meetup at MSU, inviting other teams in the region for a day of presentations, commiseration, and fun.

Keep your eyes open: recruiting for the fully funded spots on the 2018 team begins January! Last year, MSU’s first ever team got bronze. Second year: silver. Will third be gold?!


This year's professor mentors were: Michaela TerAvest, Tim Whitehead, Danny Ducat, and Bjoern Hamberger.

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