For the first time, the University of Waterloo’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Team won Gold and Best Model at the 2014 Giant Jamboree competition in Boston.
We set the bar even higher this year, and the team will continue to do that from year to year,” says Suzie Alexander, fourth-year Biomedical Sciences student and iGEM Team Director.
Competing against 225 other entries from more than 32 countries, undergraduate students from the Faculties of Science, Engineering and Mathematics, designed a synthetic bacterium called Staphylocide. It “turns off” the antibiotic resistance gene in MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
MRSA is a bacterium at the core of many difficult-to-treat skin infections that spreads easily and can cause serious, untreatable infections for hospital patients.
The largest synthetic biology event of the year
iGEM combines creative interdisciplinary research with cutting-edge science, challenging students to create their own biological systems to help tackle real world problems.
Organized each year by the iGEM Foundation, teams are given a standard set of biological parts, called BioBricks. They can use these parts and new parts of their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.
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,” says Alexander.
A hero to stop MRSA antibiotic resistance
There were three phases to their design. 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 analysed 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.
Sleepless nights pay off
Along with their gold medal, the team won Best Model for their excellent use of mathematical models and computer simulations to describe the function of their BioBrick parts in Staphylocide.
This is not the first award the team has received, having previously won a Gold medal and Best Poster award at the North American regionals last year. With a competition history stretching back to 2007, the iGEM team has consistently earned medals at the competition and continues creating exceptional projects each year.
I realized at the Jamboree how lucky we are,” says Engineering student Tessa Alexanian. “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.
A special thanks to Professors Trevor Charles, Barbara Moffatt, Andrew Doxey from the Faculty of Science, Brian Ingalls from the Faculty of Mathematics and Marc Aucoin from the Faculty of Engineering for advising the team. All laboratory work was done by the team in Professor Charles’ lab.
The Waterloo iGEM team looks forward to recruiting new, innovative students to be involved in the 2015 project beginning in January. To learn more or get involved, please visit the Waterloo iGEM team’s website.