Each year since 2005, a group of students from the University of Waterloo has been embracing the challenging, but rewarding world of synthetic biology, problem solving and researching for the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition. This competition brings together teams from countries around the world to showcase projects, and learn from each other at an annual conference.
Over the past year, Waterloo’s 2019 iGEM team embarked on an ambitious project to solve a local problem. The problem? Canada’s high use and reliance on nitrogen-containing fertilizers, which contribute to pollution and environmental damage – especially when large amounts of nitrogen enter bodies of water. This causes algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching the plants below the surface, and also decreases the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, killing aquatic life.
While this problem, known as eutrophication, may sound like a very large task to solve, Waterloo’s iGEM team focused their efforts on one simple question: Why do soybean farmers need to use so much nitrogen fertilizer, and what can we do about it? This question formed the basis of their research over the past year.
Waterloo’s team learned that the increased need for nitrogen fertilizer is related to the high use of herbicides. When herbicides are applied to a field, they not only kill weeds, but they also negatively impact the microorganisms in the soil. Some of these microorganisms, known as Rhizobia, take nitrogen gas (N2) from the atmosphere, and convert it into ammonia (NH3), which can then be used by plants.
After learning this, Waterloo’s iGEM team had a manageable goal to work toward: creating Rhizobia that are resistant to herbicides, so that the microbes can provide more nitrogen to the plants, thus reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer needed.
The team, comprised of 33 students from faculties across campus, spent the past year researching, problem solving, and collaborating in the areas of lab & design, human practices and mathematical modelling. “iGEM is a really special thing, because it’s the only place in science, to my knowledge, where undergraduate students get to work together, be in charge of their own research, and come up with their own ideas” said Leah Fulton, the co-lead of the lab & design group. Leah has been participating in iGEM since her first year as a Waterloo biology student, and has now finished her third iGEM season.
“iGEM is about experiential learning for students,” added Leah. “It’s an environment where we’re all doing it because we care and it’s fun – not because we need to get a credit or put on our resume as a job.”
The lab team was able to develop a gene construct – a synthetic portion of DNA, which can then be inserted into the genome of a microorganism. The human practices team also built relationships with local farmers and scientists, and designed an infographic to communicate the importance of synthetic biology with the public. Simultaneously, the mathematical modelling team worked to model the biochemical pathways within that modified microorganisms.
This year, Waterloo’s iGEM team was awarded silver standing at the annual conference in Boston. “Beyond how we did at the competition, we are really proud of how we worked as a team this year! Everyone was heavily involved in the project and put in a lot of hard work. It is always great to see all the members grow together!”
Each year, the iGEM team looks for passionate students interested in joining their team. Team members do not need lab experience to participate, but instead iGEM looks for a willingness to learn! Applications for the 2020 iGEM team will open on their Facebook and Instagram accounts at the beginning of Winter term.