Guest post by Suzie Alexander (Team Director, Waterloo iGEM)
40 students. 8 months. 1 project.
It all starts with an idea.
Picture this: Undergraduate students gathered in various classrooms around the University of Waterloo campus brainstorming. The purpose? To design a novel synthetic biology system that would make a difference. Students bounced ideas around the room, with possibilities including radiation cleanup solutions, bioenergy production, and cystic fibrosis treatments. Ultimately, the Waterloo iGEM team decided on a project born out of Biol 349, a synthetic biology design course offered in the Winter term at UWaterloo. The team took the project, proposed by a Waterloo Biology student, Cody Shirriff, and hit the ground running.
The problem: Antibiotic resistance in MRSA or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium responsible for difficult-to-treat infections.
The solution: Staphylocide, a mechanism of delivering antibiotic resistance gene silencing.
There are three phases to their design. Deliver, silence, and translate.
The first challenge for the team was to test different silencing mechanisms that would inhibit the expression of the resistance gene in MRSA. The team used mathematical models to compare their data sets and determine the most efficient silencing system. Next, the team looked into ways to deliver the silencing system into a population of MRSA. Bacterial conjugation dynamics were analyzed using two different mathematical models that provided information on the behaviour of the cells over time. Finally, to translate the project into an idea for the marketplace, the team proposed developing an antibiotic resistance ointment that patients could use on their skin to treat MRSA infections.
Putting the idea to the test
With a plan in mind, the team got to work designing constructs (above), running simulations and beginning experimentation. Students were in the lab during the summer and fall months to check their plates and run their gels (below). Did my ligation work? Did my DNA transform into the cell? Maybe I should run one more control…
While completing their project, the team also submitted and characterized many BioBrick parts. BioBricks are standardized DNA pieces and are a result of contributions from the iGEM community.
Fast forward to October and the team gets closer to the infamous Wiki Freeze, the deadline to create a wiki-media website containing the entire project. This required a team effort. Students crowded into the team office (above), which was generously provided by the Department of Biology and Faculty of Science, for a few nights of coding. Keyboards ticked and computer mice clicked as the team worked into the night. The clock struck twelve on Friday October 17th, just in time to put the finishing touches on the Wiki.
On October 30th, around 5 AM, the team gathered in front of EIT (above) to begin their journey to the competition. With their scientific poster in one hand and passport in the other, the team piled into minivans and drove to Boston, MA to present their project at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.
With approximately 225 distinguished teams from around the globe set to attend, the Waterloo team was excited! Teams worked on projects to create stable circularized proteins, a bacterial cellulose filter capable of filtering water, and a pheromone-based insect trap. Many more interesting projects were presented! All team projects can be found here.
The team saw great innovation and dedication to the fundamental sciences involved in creating exceptional synthetic biology projects. The Waterloo team achieved Gold Standing for the quality of their project. Ninety of the 225 teams received Gold Standing, three of which were Canadian teams. Where Waterloo dominated the competition was the mathematics.
The team won the special award Best Model for the simulation of their system.
All in all, the competition was an excellent opportunity for students to take ownership of a research project research project and see it through from beginning to end.
The future of the team
So what’s next for the team? A new competition year means a new project and team. Got a great idea? Waterloo iGEM wants you! The team is currently recruiting Senior Leaders and will also be recruiting in January 2015. Keep an eye on our website for all openings! You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter.
Until next time, aspire on!