Waterloo iGEM students bring home gold

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Waterloo iGEM 2013 team members Anjali Arya, XXXWaterloo’s iGEM team won a Gold Medal standing and Best Poster at the 2013 iGEM Regional Jamboree competition. Sixty teams from across North America competed, including Yale and iGEM founder, MIT.

“It’s safe to say that our endless nights and early mornings have paid off,” said Biology student Anjali Arya.

iGEM, International Genetically Engineered Machine, is a worldwide synthetic biology competition that encourages undergraduate students to conduct creative, interdisciplinary research. The Waterloo iGEM team includes students from the Faculties of Math and Engineering, but most are from the Faculty of Science.

At the beginning of competition, teams are assigned a set of standard biological parts which they turn into a working synthetic biological tool. Students direct the project themselves with support from professors, researchers, and graduate students. The team is also encouraged to develop ways to educate the public about synthetic biology and to promote an open-source research culture.

iGEM has been described as a prime example of experiential learning and entrepreneurial leadership, transforming cutting-edge science into ideas for society and the marketplace.

“iGem gives you the flexibility of taking an idea and going forward with it. A lot of employers really like that initiative and they really like you going outside the box and doing really new things,” says Ekta Bibra, a member of iGEM 2012.

The Waterloo iGEM 2013 project was inspired by an engineered approach to cell–cell communication using DNA messaging developed at Stanford last year. The approach uses an E. coli virus to package and deliver a programmable DNA message between cells. Cell–cell communication enables cells within larger groups to communicate and exhibit collective behavior.

Waterloo iGEM improved on the DNA messaging concept by designing an on–off promoter switch to control transmission and retransmission of customizable DNA messages. Some applications of engineered cell–cell communication include research into programmed pattern formation, self-generating tissues and construction of biocomputers. 

The regional competition results represent Waterloo’s first Gold Medal standing and the second time Waterloo iGEM advanced to the World Championships since it began competing in 2007. The 2013 World Championship was held at MIT where Waterloo iGEM competed against 200 teams from around the world.

“This is an excellent accomplishment for Science,” says David Rose, Biology Department Chair.

Now, the Waterloo team looks forward to recruiting new team members for the 2014 project, which starts in January. To learn more about iGEM 2013, please visit the iGEM website.

Professors Trevor Charles, Brian Ingalls, Marc Aucoin, Barbara Moffatt and Andrew Doxey acted as faculty advisors. Waterloo iGEM 2013 conducted all their laboratory work in Professor Charles’ lab.

Sponsors included the University of Waterloo, the Faculties of Science, Engineering and Mathematics, the Departments of Chemistry, Biology, and Chemical Engineering, the Faculty of Science Foundation, the Mathematics Endowment Fund, uIntuition, and BioBasic, Inc.