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UW students bring home gold medal in international science competition

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UW iGem team members, Justin Siegel, Douglas White, Josef Dunbar, Ingrid Swanson, Christopher Eiben, Jeffrey Nivala and Alex Leone, stand in the David Baker Lab where they completed most of their research for an Idealized Protein Purification system. The team won a gold medal for their system at the iGem competition at MIT this year.

Five UW science students spent last summer contributing to the next frontier in synthetic biology.

The UW’s international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team brought home a gold medal last month from MIT’s sixth annual iGEM competition, an undergraduate symposium of synthetic biology.

“For students, the iGEM competition provides the means to design, build and explore the intellectual-properties potential of their own genetically modified biological devices,” said the team’s adviser Ingrid Swanson.

Swanson and fellow adviser Justin Siegel led their team to compete with 103 institutions from around the world to create altered biological systems.

Many of the students do protein purification as part of their studies and would like to find a quicker way to perform the work. They accomplished their goal of making the three-and-a-half-hour process a 10-minute process, team member Jeff Nivala, a UW senior, said.

This basic protein purification part was not in the synthetic-biology registry at MIT before this year, Chris Eiben, a team member and UW senior, said.

The UW team also developed a secretion mechanism that could be practically applied to secrete medicine or even nerve agent degraders, Nivala said.

For some of the team, iGem provided a new experience. For Eiben, an undergraduate in cell, molecular and developmental biology, this was his first chance to be in a “wet lab,” working hands-on with proteins.

The UW team won a gold medal for their ability to make a synthetic-biological part and have it function and add something new to the centralized registry, housed at MIT. How close a project comes to its goal affects which medal a team receives, Siegel explained.

“That is as much as you can want or accept from undergraduates over a summer,” said Swanson. “Over 10 weeks, we expect them to achieve a Ph.D. level of a project.”

The UW’s iGEM team worked “diligently over the summer to construct a novel system to produce and purify proteins in a manner that is cheaper and more efficient than traditional methods” in the labs of Eric Klavins and David Baker of the UW, Swanson said.

“At the beginning of the summer, students come up with very ambitious, save-the-world, change-the-realm-of-biotechnology projects,” Siegel said. “It is a lofty thing to say, ‘Let’s look in the face of 30 years of tradition and say they got it wrong. Let’s use modern technology to make it better, quicker and easier.’”

Most of the submissions to the annual competition have direct applications. For instance, last year a team from Rice University took yeast and tried to manufacture a pathway to produce resveratrol, the antioxidant in red wine, to give beer’s the health benefits of the wine.

Forty research labs use the registry, Siegel said. At the UW, Eric Klavins’ lab uses parts called “BioBricks.”

“The beauty of iGEM is that students spend all summer putting together these great projects and great parts … in a standardized format, such that it works with all the other teams’ projects,” Siegel said.

This is “a self-perpetuating project” because each team sends its work to a centralized registry of 5,000 BioBricks at MIT. Other teams can get the parts and can continue work on a project or work on another project with pre-existing parts.

“People can get really creative,” Siegel said.

Cambridge University won the grand prize this year for its “Crayola crayon”-colored strains of bacteria.

The iGEM team is always looking for new members from all majors, science and liberal arts alike.

“The overall goal of this competition is that this field should not be scary,” Siegel said. “Synthetic biology is not scary and is very simple to do and anybody, anybody, can do it with a little training.”

Reach contributing writer Kaetlyn Cordingley at news@dailyuw.com.

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