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MSU students participate in premier synthetic biology competition

Guest post by Eric Young: Over ten years ago, an independent study course began at MIT revolving around an emerging idea in biology that perhaps living cells thoughts as small containers of defined parts, and perhaps engineering biology could eventually be as similar to as making a working circuit board or computer. This line of thought—now broadly referred to as the field of Synthetic Biology—and course eventually blossomed into an organization which spans the globe with thousands of participants. Known as the International Genetic Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation, this organization manages three main programs. This year Michigan State University fielded the first team in the competition segment of iGEM.

Concept drawing of cyanobacterial uses
Concept drawing of cyanobacteria engineered to create useful products.
By iGEM Team MSU

The overarching theme of the competition portion is building genetically engineered biological systems using standardized biological “parts.” Conceptually, one could think of these parts as no different than browsing the contents of a catalogue for a home improvement store; some parts act as fluorescent lights, others stitch differing parts together, and while even some behave as on/off switches. One ultimate goal for an iGEM competition team is to add characterized biological parts to the ever-growing catalogue found at the Registry of Standardized Biological Parts. Teams are sent a plethora of Registry Parts for use in their own project implementation. Another goal in the competition portion includes community outreach in the form of interactive education on iGEM and Synthetic Biology. Based on predefined criteria and critical evaluation by a panel of judges, teams can be awarded three medals (bronze, silver, and gold).

This year MSU presented its inaugural iGEM team, which placed their research focus on engineering and characterizing new parts for photosynthetic cyanobacteria. The team consisted of an assortment of four MSU Professors as advisees, one outside of MSU consultant, one PhD student mentor, and most importantly, three undergraduate students.

After several rounds of brainstorm meetings, the undergraduate students—from diverse backgrounds in material science engineering, food science, and biochemistry—decided to pursue a project centered on engineering cold and freezing adaptation to cyanobacteria. Engineering cold and freezing resistance is important since cyanobacteria are being touted as an increasing viable “green” option for production of chemical commodities and other industrially relevant materials, yet most industrially relevant strains lack any strong resilience to drops in temperature.

Concept of "Frosty the Cyano" project
"Frosty the Cyano" concept.
By iGEM Team MSU

After months of hard work and troubleshooting, MSU’s iGEM team—dubbed Frosty the Cyanos—time had come to prepare for traveling to the international iGEM Jamboree held in Boston, MA. This was where the team would demonstrate to the iGEM community the results of their project. This encompassed a 20-minute presentation to iGEM peers and judges, followed by a questioning session, and nightly talks in front of a poster comprising their research.

After a whirlwind weekend of science, MSU’s Frosty the Cyanos were well received by the iGEM community, and a bronze medal was awarded for the contribution of a brand new cyanobacterial part to the Registry! Part of the bronze medal award included recognition for team’s community outreach at Lansing’s Impression 5 Science Center. Special recognition was also given for the team’s development of a very low-cost, “DIY” cyanobacterial bioreactor for growing cyanobacteria in a continuous culture. Engineering cheaper alternatives to expensive lab equipment is important because it lowers the economic barriers associated with Synthetic Biology and it brings the capacity to do science to communities that might otherwise be priced out.

Reflecting on the experience, MSU’s inaugural iGEM team learned the ropes for making a successful iGEM team and aim to apply these insights towards the team next year. More importantly though, the undergraduate students gained a new appreciation for the developing field of Synthetic Biology and the importance of scientific communication to a wide variety of audiences.

Eric Young is a 4th year graduate student in the Department of Biochemisty & Molecular Biology who works in the Ducat lab. He was an advisor to the 2016 MSU iGEM team.

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