Interviews — 16 November 2014

The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) is an undergraduate Synthetic Biology competition. Participating student teams use a kit of biological parts, along with new parts of their own, to design biological devices and operate them in living cells. Projects usually address real-world problems and have real-world applications. Dr. Jeffrey Barrick is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin and has been advising the university’s iGEM team for the last three years. He and one of the senior members of the team, undergraduate student Jordan Monk, spoke about UT Austin’s iGEM project and about the team’s overall experience at iGEM.

This year, the UT Austin iGEM team worked on a project called the Genetic Code Expansion Pack. As Dr. Barrick explained, the normal genetic code uses 20 amino acids. These amino acids are linked together inside a cell to make proteins. Synthetic biologists have invented technologies to add a new 21st amino acid, called a non-canonical amino acid, to the genetic code. “Non-canonical amino acids have the potential to augment the chemical functionality of existing proteins in interesting new ways; they can be building blocks that are entirely new to biology.” Although this technology has been around for a while, it can be difficult to use properly. Researchers and iGEM teams need a cheap tool to be able to measure how well the different biological parts work that are required to add each different non-canonical amino acid to the genetic code. To address this need, the UT Austin iGEM team made a kit that allows scientists to perform a simple measurement to demonstrate that this technology is actually working in their bacteria, which would otherwise be expensive and require specialized equipment. As Jordan added, the kit allows scientists to test this technology in a cheap way – less than 1 dollar per sample, compared to about 50 dollars per sample using traditional mass spectrometry. According to Dr. Barrick, the team’s project is contributing to making this technology more widely available, to reach the point at which more labs and iGEM teams can use it reliably.

Alongside their regular iGEM project, the UT Austin team also worked on an outreach project in Austin. The team participated in Austin’s South by Southwest festival with a project called Caffeinated Coli, as a way to introduce the new members to research techniques and methods and also to do some outreach in the community (a requirement for iGEM). Karen Ingram, an organizer with South by Southwest, approached the team and asked them to participate in a portion of the festival called South by Southwest Create, which focuses on the DIY/hacker/maker community. The team decided to use a strain of E. coli engineered by a previous iGEM team to measure the caffeine content of a beverage. This particular strain of E. coli was engineered so that the amount of caffeine present in its environment limits how many times the cells can divide. So, when added to a caffeinated beverage sample, the final number of E. coli cells indicates how much caffeine was present in the sample. The team used these bacteria to measure the caffeine content of different coffee samples from 50 coffee shops around Austin. They then presented their findings at the festival. According to Jordan, presenting the team’s findings at the festival was a great experience: “for me especially, having been in the lab but not out talking to people about my science, being forced to explain it … was a great experience. I got to have a lot of conversations about what synthetic biology is, why it is important, and how it is relevant to the general public. This coffee project was great because most people deal with coffee every day, it’s part of their lives, and they don’t always see something like laboratory science as being relevant to their daily life.” According to both Dr. Barrick and Jordan, these kinds of outreach projects are also important because they give scientists perspective about their work.

For an interactive map of coffee shops the team visited, click here

The iGEM competition itself is a great experience for both students and their advisors. For the students, iGEM presents an opportunity to learn to collaborate, work in the lab, and present their work to both fellow scientists and to the general public. iGEM is like “the pentathlon of science,” according to Dr. Barrick. The students not only work on a research project, they are also required to think deeply about the ethical implications of their project and do an outreach project, which is not usually part of the normal laboratory experience. The students also do a wiki website, a poster presentation, and an oral presentation of their project, so they must learn to present their work in many different media. Overall, the experience has incredible depth. For Jordan especially, the iGEM experience has been transformative: “I’ve been on the iGEM team a couple of years now and it’s been one of the greatest experiences of my life. It has really changed me and has opened a lot of doors to me that have never been open. I think I have a good chance to get into graduate school and become a scientist. This experience has really improved my life in many ways.”

For more information on the UT Austin iGEM team and their projects, visit their wiki website.

 

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Noa Yaakoba-Zohar

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