Waterloo students create microbe to weaken superbug

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A team of undergraduate students from the University of Waterloo have designed a synthetic organism that may one day help doctors treat MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant superbug.

The synthetic bacterium, Staphylocide, essentially turns off the antibiotic-resistance gene in MRSA, making it responsive to treatment again. MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is at the core of many skin infections that spread easily and can cause serious, untreatable infections for hospital patients.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team, composed of students from Waterloo's Faculties of Science, Engineering and Mathematics, won a gold medal for designing Staphylocide at the recent International Giant Jamboree in Boston. They also took the prize for best model for their use of mathematical models and computer simulations that describe the structures and systems they used to complete Staphylocide.

“Our members are enthusiastic and always strive for excellence. I think that’s part of the Waterloo culture, the idea of why not, which opens up the possibilities to pursuing bigger and better projects,” said Suzie Alexander, fourth-year Science student and iGEM director.

This year’s project was divided into three phases. First, the team conducted a series of lab experiments to find the best way to silence the resistance gene in MRSA. Then, they looked for ways to deliver the gene into their synthetic bacterium. Finally, they translated their idea into an antibiotic resistance ointment for patients.

The group won a gold medal and the award for best poster at the North American regionals last year. The iGEM team has consistently earned medals at competitions since 2007.

“I realized at the jamboree how lucky we are,” said Tessa Alexanian, a Waterloo Engineering student. “Science has a whole course—Biology 349—that’s intended for students to develop synthetic biology project skills. I think it’s really special the amount of support we receive.”

Bringing together 225 universities from more than 32 countries, the jamboree celebrates research by university students and showcases their achievements in synthetic biology. iGEM combines creative interdisciplinary research with cutting-edge science, challenging students to create their own biological systems to help tackle real-world problems.

About the University of Waterloo

In just half a century, the University of Waterloo, located at the heart of Canada's technology hub, has become one of Canada's leading comprehensive universities with 35,000 full- and part-time students in undergraduate and graduate programs. A globally focused institution, celebrated as Canada’s most innovative university for 23 consecutive years, Waterloo is home to the world's largest post-secondary co-operative education program and encourages enterprising partnerships in learning, research and discovery. In the next decade, the university is committed to building a better future for Canada and the world by championing innovation and collaboration to create solutions relevant to the needs of today and tomorrow. For more information about Waterloo, please visit uwaterloo.ca.

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