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Students go "synthetic"


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Last spring, University of Minnesota undergrads formed a team to participate in iGEM, an international competition to design and develop modular molecular building blocks known as BioBricks and assemble them to create microorganism-based systems for manufacturing useful products. Here's what happened.

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Students go "synthetic"

  1. 1. Students  go  “synthe.c”   What  be(er  way  to  make  complex  molecules  than  to  enlist   the  help  of  living  things  that  do  it  all  the  ;me?  That’s  the   idea  behind  synthe;c  biology,  a  rapidly  growing  field  focused   on  modifying  microorganisms  to  produce  biofuels,  medicines   and  other  chemical  compounds  to  meet  human  needs.       And  what  be(er  way  to  expand  our  ability  to  do  so  than  to   enlist  the  crea;ve  thinking  and  energy  of  undergraduate   students?  That’s  the  idea  behind  iGEM,  an  interna;onal   compe;;on  that  challenges  teams  to  imagine  a  need  that   could  be  met  through  synthe;c  biology,  then  carry  out  the   lab  work  to  make  it  a  reality.    
  2. 2. Last  spring,  University  of  Minnesota   undergrads  formed  a  team  to  par;cipate  in   iGEM,  an  interna;onal  compe;;on  to  design   and  develop  modular  molecular  building   blocks  known  as  BioBricks  and  assemble  them   to  create  microorganism-­‐based  systems  for   manufacturing  useful  products.    
  3. 3. The  project  they  chose  was  proposed  by  students   from  a  spring  semester  synthe;c  biology  course  who   suggested  developing  BioBrick  parts  that  could  be   used  to  transform  a  yeast,  Pichia  pastoris,  into  an   insulin-­‐producing  powerhouse.  The  group  proposing   the  project  included  Jake  Tenold,  a  fourth-­‐year   microbiology  student  who  was  inspired  by  family   members  with  diabetes  and  by  the  growing  need  in   developing  countries  for  insulin.  
  4. 4. In  addi;on  to  producing  synthe;c  biology  systems   and  products,  iGEM  teams  are  challenged  to  teach   others  about  synthe;c  biology.  The  UMN  iGEM   team  decided  to  develop  a  curriculum  to  introduce   middle  school  students  to  synthe;c  biology.  Team   members  Basem  Al-­‐Shayeb,  a  fourth-­‐year  biology   student,  and  Suzie  Hsu,  a  fiQh-­‐year  biochemistry   and  opera;on  management  student,  worked  with   graduate  mentor  Aunica  Kane  to  develop  the   presenta;on.  
  5. 5. The  lab-­‐based  part  of  the  project  consisted  of  two   goals.  The  first  was  to  create  two  BioBrick-­‐based   “shu(le  vectors”  that  can  move  DNA  coding  for   two  proteins,  human  insulin  and  a  helper  protein   needed  to  ac;vate  insulin,  from  bacteria  into  P.   pastoris.  The  second  goal  was  to  assemble  a   “shipping  vector”  for  each  of  the  proteins  that   would  allow  it  to  become  part  of  the  BioBrick  parts   library.    Cell  biology  and  computer  science  fourth-­‐ year  student  Stephen  Heinsch  was  involved  in   both  projects.    
  6. 6. The  team  made  progress  on  the  shu(le   vectors  but  was  not  able  to  fully  assemble   them  by  the  project  deadline.  “Science  is  kind   of  a  jerk—no  respect  for  people’s  schedules,”   says  team  member  Niko  Le  Mieux,  a  fourth-­‐ year  chemistry  and  Mandarin  student.  
  7. 7. Even  as  the  lab  team  scrambled  to   assemble  the  BioBricks,  the   outreach  team  headed  to  Salk   Middle  School  in  Elk  River,  where   they  enthralled  more  than  150   students  with  three  days  of  hands-­‐ on  explora;on  of  synthe;c  biology   principles,  prac;ces,  and  ethics.   “7th  graders  say  bacteria  are  “SO  COOL,   but  smelly!”  graduate  advisor  Aunica   Kane  tweets  as  she  watches  the  middle   school  students  in  ac;on.  
  8. 8. Meanwhile,  back  at  the  lab  -­‐  good  news!   The  team’s  efforts  to  assemble  a  shipping   vector  for  insulin  was  a  rousing  success.  
  9. 9. The  gallant  race  to  the  finish  in  the   lab,  along  with  an  exemplary  effort   by  the  outreach  con;ngent,  earned   the  University  of  Minnesota  iGEM   team  a  bronze  medal  at  the  North   America  championship  in  Toronto  in   October.  More  than  50  teams   competed  in  the  event.  
  10. 10. Postdoctoral  mentor  Jimmy  Ellinger  is  glad  he  got   a  chance  to  work  with  the  UMN  iGEM  team.  “It’s   been  both  rewarding  and  a  learning  experience  for   everyone  involved,  both  students  and  instructors,”   he  said.  “I’m  absolutely  looking  forward  to  doing  it   again  next  year.”