Waterloo students have designed a synthetic organism that may one day help doctors treat MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant superbug.

The synthetic bacterium, Staphylocide, “turns off” the antibiotic-resistance gene in MRSA, making it sensitive again to antibiotics and easier for doctors to treat. MRSA - methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus - is a superbug at the core of many skin infections that spread easily and can cause serious, untreatable infections for hospital patients.

Waterloo students win gold

Waterloo’s team of undergrads won a gold medal for designing Staphylocide at the recent International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) in Boston. Waterloo’s iGEM team, made up of students from the Faculties of Science, Mathematics and Engineering, also won Best Model for their use of mathematical models and computer simulations that describe the structures and systems they used to complete Staphylocide.

the IGem Team

(Left to right) Cody Shirriff, Julia Manalil, Suzie Alexander, Tessa Alexanian, Jama Hagi-Yusuf

“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 Suzie Alexander, a science student and iGEM director.

This year’s project had three phases:

  • Lab experiments to find best way to silence MRSA resistance gene
  • Method of delivering gene into synthetic bacterium
  • Design of ointment for patients

Students tackle real-world problems

Bringing together 225 universities from over 32 countries, the international iGEM competition celebrates university student research 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.

This is not the first award the team has received, having previously won a Gold medal and Best Poster 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, who pointed out that Waterloo students can take an entire course (Biology 349) to develop synthetic biology project skills.

Five Waterloo professors advised the team - Trevor Charles, Barbara Moffatt and Andrew Doxey from the Faculty of Science; Brian Ingalls from the Faculty of Mathematics and Marc Aucoin from the Faculty of Engineering.