Waterloo heads to the international iGEM Giant Jamboree

Monday, September 21, 2015

Waterloo iGEM 2015 team in the lab.

Working in the new, dedicated iGEM lab space are team members (left to right): Peivand Sadat Mousavi, Patrick Diep, James Hawley, Steven ten Holder, Zoe Wu.

The University of Waterloo’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Team is heading off this month to compete against 270 other entries from more than five continents in the 2015 Giant Jamboree competition in Boston.

It’s definitely crunch time,” says James Hawley, Director of Waterloo iGEM and fourth-year Applied Mathematics undergraduate. “We’re excited to be putting the finishing touches on our project in time for the Jamboree.”

The team, with undergraduate students from the Faculties of Science, Engineering and Mathematics, has inserted their improved version of a revolutionary genome editing tool into a model plant as part of a proof-of-concept project to improve plant immune systems.

The new approach has direct implications for genetically modifying crops against a range of viruses, making crop protection more tailor-made and more responsive to changing environments.

The largest synthetic biology event of the year

Organized each year by the iGEM Foundation, the iGEM competition combines creative interdisciplinary research with cutting-edge science, challenging students to create their own biological systems to help tackle real world problems.

Teams are provided with 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. Past team research results and know-how are shared freely through iGEM’s project wiki webpages.

iGEM is a great educational opportunity that let’s undergraduates do real research for the first time,” says Hawley. “The projects are entirely student driven, so we get to see what it takes to design projects from the ground up. And our research results and tools are shared so our work can continue to be built upon.”

Adapting against viral invasions

Plants are under constant attack by viruses and microorganisms in the environment. Being able to improve a plant’s immune response is important for crop and plant protection, particularly against devastating invaders.

The CRISPR-Cas9 system is a highly precise genome editing tool that has recently taken the biomedical world by storm. The system originated as part of an RNA-guided adaptive immune system in bacteria that records, recognizes and directly attacks viral DNA.

Arabidopsis thalianaWaterloo iGEM improved this immune response system by making it easier to work with and more flexible to program. Their application in the well-studied model plant Arabidopsis thaliana tests whether this system can improve the immune response in plants against a range of specific viruses.

The CRISPR modified A. thaliana is being tested against the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus this week as part of the team’s final round of experiments. If successful, the approach will provide a new framework for genetically modifying crops to protect against a range of viral infections.

Waterloo iGEM goes for the Gold

With a competition history stretching back to 2007, the iGEM team has consistently earned medals with exceptional projects each year. In 2013, the Waterloo iGEM team won gold and best posterLast year, the team received a Gold Medal and Best Model at the international Giant Jamboree.

This year having our own iGEM lab space within the Faculty of Science has been a huge benefit,” says Hawley. “We really had the space to explore and make the project our own.”

Waterloo iGEM team members include lab and design leads Peivand Sadat Mousavi and Steven ten Holder, mathematical modeling leads Matt Smart and Tessa Alexanian, and policy and practices lead Nadine Haymour.

The team acknowledges the support, advice and funding this past year by many departments, faculties, and individuals. The team’s academic advisors include 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.

The Waterloo iGEM team looks forward to recruiting new, innovative students for the 2016 project beginning in January. To learn more or get involved, please visit the Waterloo iGEM team’s website.