Students take home trophy in synthetic biology competition

A team of four UC Davis undergraduates took home the trophy for best entry in their track at the Internationally Genetically Engineered Machine competition held at MIT Nov 5-7.

While other UC Davis students enter competitions to engineer cars or bridges, iGEM is an annual competition for undergraduate students working with life itself — in the new field of synthetic biology. Competing teams get a basic kit of parts and use them to build circuits that work in living cells.

The team members are, with majors (from the left): Nick Csicsery, biological systems engineering; Keegan Owsley, biomedical engineering; Aaron Heuckroth, microbiology and classics; and Tim Fenton, cell biology.

Going to the weekend competition was “one of the best weekends of my life,” Heuckroth said in an email.

“I’ve never met so many dedicated, intelligent and downright awesome people in such a short time. There’s a sense of camaraderie both within and between iGEM teams that’s unlike anything else I’ve experienced as an undergrad. You work 40, 50, 60 hours a week all summer on a project that you really, earnestly care about. Getting to share that enthusiasm with other people who understand not only the subject matter but the level of effort that went it is just an amazing experience.”

The UC Davis team began work in the Spring and did most of the work over the summer quarter, working in laboratories at the UC Davis Genome Center, said faculty advisor Marc Faccioti, professor of biomedical engineering.

The summer project gave them real experience of what it’s like to have full-time research position, and seeing like-minded people excited about their work was inspiring, Csicsery said.

“After finishing iGEM this year, I feel inspired to do more research and am more passionate about biology and engineering than I was before,” he said.

The team competed in ‘foundational advances,’ one of a number of available tracks within the competition. For their project, they decided to expand the range of ‘kit parts’ available to would-be genetic engineers.

These parts consist of genes called promoters and repressors, which, rather like resistors and transistors in electronic circuits, function to turn genes on or off or turn them up or down.

With these components in hand, scientists can build circuits to make cells carry out different functions, Faccioti said. For example, a cell might be engineered to change color when exposed to pollutants, churn out a useful drug, or to digest food to make biofuels.

The new ‘parts’ will be added to the Registry of Standard Biological Parts that is available to all scientists working in synthetic biology, Faccioti said.

Also advising the team were Ilias Tagkopoulos, professor in the Department of Computer Science and at the Genome Center; and graduate students Mike Starr and Lin Huynh. The team was sponsored by Novozymes Inc., the UC Davis Colleges of Engineering and of Biological Sciences, the UC Davis Genome Center, the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Fisher Scientific Inc.

More information about the iGEM World Championship, including photos and video, is available here.


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