Club Spotlight

iGEM team earns bronze at competition

For the first time in our university’s history, Rensselaer students joined 3,000 synthetic biologists at the international Genetically Engineered Machine Giant Jamboree in Boston from November 9–13. The 2017 iGEM competition featured an amazing array of 310 student teams from 44 countries. This unique event combined the spirit of the Olympics with the rigor of a genetic engineering science fair. The first successful Rensselaer iGEM team earned a bronze medal award for our manufacturing project demonstrating that selective modification of the yeast Starmerella bombicola MFE-2 gene improves the efficiency of sophorolipid production.

Our iGEM mentors Professor Mattheos Koffas and Professor Richard Gross supported our team of 11 undergraduates who study biochemistry and biophysics, bioinformatics and molecular biology, business and management, chemical engineering, biology, and biomedical engineering. The 2017 RPI iGEM team launched with enthusiastic support and funding from professors who enabled our student team to officially register, unlocking 20,000 base pairs of free DNA synthesis from our sponsor Integrated DNA Technologies. The 2018 RPI iGEM team is now recruiting interested students.

Our first donor, Department Head in Chemical and Biological Engineering and Professor Joel Plawsky, said, “The iGEM team did a great job and were tremendous representatives for Rensselaer. We in the Howard P. Isermann Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering were happy to support them in any way we could. We thought this was a fantastic opportunity to get folks from different disciplines together and working on a creative idea with a common goal.” Department Head in Biomedical Engineering and Professor Juergen Hahn, Vice President for Research Jonathan Dordick, Dean of the School of Science Curt Breneman, Department Head of Biological Science and Professor Susan Gilbert, Dean of the School of Engineering Shekhar Garde, and the Director of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies Deepak Vashishth also provided generous contributions. Our team benefited from having access to the equipment and laboratories of CBIS. In the words of Vashishth, “the success of the iGEM team follows directly from the hard work and dedication of the student and faculty team who crafted an interdisciplinary approach at the crossroads of life sciences and engineering and worked tirelessly utilizing state of the art equipment and research cores.”

Student leader Krystyna Farrell ’18 directed the microbial genetics committee of four students who assembled the DNA constructs used to modify the yeast Starmerella bombicola. Cameron Kee ’18 led the culturing and chemistry committee of five students who cultured both control and modified yeasts to compare sophorolipid yields. In his own words, “iGEM represented an entirely unparalleled opportunity to design and run an experiment entirely independently.” Blossom Wong ’19 worked with Megan Gupta ’19 to create the iGEM wiki website for our project. Gupta said that “iGEM was an excellent learning opportunity for me to learn new skills such as HTML coding and work with such a great team to accomplish exciting feats in the laboratory. I’m truly grateful that I had the chance to participate.”

The key contributions of Farrell to our InterLab Study helped our team earn the bronze medal. According to Farrell, “The iGEM experience was very rewarding for me. Having never led a research project start to finish, I learned much more about the process of experimental design and enjoyed seeing the project come to life.” With the help of Stephanie Lee ’18 and Farrell, we shared our sophorolipid research with judges at our presentation and poster sessions. Our project gained from the hands-on laboratory work of our additional team members Leah Henegar ’18, Helen Merricks ’18, Genesis Moran ’19, and Maily Nguyen ’19. We also thank our advisors graduate student Fei Liu, Dr. Jian Zha, and Dr. Shekar Mekala, who said that “the most fascinating thing about my participation in the 2017 iGEM project is to work with bright students and to see their ‘curiosity’ to execute the project successfully.”

With the help of our finance committee member Ian Fralen ’18, we produced writing and graphic designs for our online crowdfunding campaign, brochure, informational postcard, banner, and team wiki. We also thank the 12 additional donors to our crowdfunding campaign who enabled our experiments and Giant Jamboree participation. Whatever your major or skill set, the 2018 RPI iGEM team could use your talents if you’d like to learn synthetic biology, perform undergraduate research, make friends, build your resume, and benefit the world. Please contact rpiigem@gmail.com to learn more about how to get involved for next year.