Outside-the-Box Biology

The Gopher iGEM team develops a bioremediation technology and brings home gold for best environmental project at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition.

CBS seniors Basem Al-Shayeb (microbiology) and Jessica Tarnowski (genetics, cell biology and development) co-led the 24-person team made up primarily of undergraduates. Faculty advisors included Dr. Jeff Gralnick (Microbiology/BTI) and Dr. Casim Sarkar (CSE).

If you ask a dozen scientists what synthetic biology means to them, you may get a dozen answers. Here’s one that sums it up in layman’s terms:

“Biology like you learned in high school is a discovery science. You’re trying to find how the world works and then do something interesting based on the knowledge that you’ve achieved. Synthetic biology is more of an engineering activity. It’s really building new things that didn't exist before.”

That’s how Randy Rettberg, president of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, explained the field for PBS NewsHour, when the TV crew went behind the scenes of the 2008 iGEM competition. That was the fifth year of the competition, and about 80 teams participated.

Fast forward to October 2014, just a couple of weeks away from the 10th-annual iGEM Giant Jamboree. Nearly 250 teams, including the University of Minnesota, will gather to present their projects and compete for awards and prizes this year.

A few months prior to the Jamboree, student teams from colleges across the globe are given a kit of biological parts from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Working at their own schools over the summer, they use these parts, as well as new parts of their own design, to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.

“I think we've got a very good chance at the gold this year, given the diversity of the team and the progress we’ve made already,” says Jeffrey Gralnick, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and faculty advisor (along with Casim Sarkar, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering) for the U’s iGEM team.

That potentially award-winning project uses biological agents to convert harmful environmental toxins into a less toxic form, says Basem Al-Shayeb, the 2014 iGEM student team leader and a CBS undergrad majoring in microbiology and genetics.

“We’ve designed a device that contains encapsulated microbes that are genetically engineered,” explains Al-Shayeb. “Those can pick up methylmercury and mercury ions from a contaminated water source, and convert that into a less toxic form that is eventually captured and disposed of sustainably.”

“Our team is combining aspects that people have thought about individually, but not necessarily together,” adds Gralnick.

When the University of Minnesota first started with the competition a few years ago, the team was small and limited to CBS students. This year, however, students from CBS, the College of Science and Engineering and the College of Liberal Arts have worked together to bring the project to life.

“The project began with a few students who were interested in solving a particular problem, and they reached out to other students with different skills and backgrounds,” says Gralnick. “We began getting people who understood how to model and build the device, as well as those who understood the synthetic biology aspect.”

The students’ device is so practical, in fact, that they’ve shared details about their invention to the Office for Technology Commercialization.

“What’s unique about the iGEM experience is that it’s so driven by the students themselves,” says Gralnick. “These students don't have the constraints in knowledge, so they’re thinking more broadly about different approaches. It's outside-the-box thinking and it’s fun to watch what they come up with.”

The UMN iGEM project is made possible through funds from CBS, 3M, Cargill and MnDRIVE.

— Eve Daniels