iGEM competition stretches student researchers

By Pat Bailey

As 2015 draws to a close, a team of UC Davis undergraduates can look back with pride and a sigh of relief on one of the most grueling but rewarding experiences of their college career.

Students Gabriel Freund, Muntaha Samad, Andrew Shepherd, Logan Vinson and Joanne Wu, were selected last spring as members of UC Davis’ 2015 iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) team. They were joined by Andrew Michelmore, who is from Davis but attends Santa Clara University.

Gabriel Freund in the lab

Gabriel Freund in the lab

The team members, with majors ranging from biology to engineering, participated with some 280 teams from 30 countries in the final Jamboree competition in Boston, just as fall quarter kicked off here on campus. Throughout the summer they had designed and tested a small device capable of detecting the presence of the chemical triclosan in water, a project they chose for iGEM.

They were advised by faculty members Justin Siegel, Ilias Tagkopoulos and Mark Facciotti as well as graduate students Alex Carlin, Aaron Cohen and Russell Neches, and staff researcher Andrew Yao.

Detecting antimicrobial contamination

Triclosan is an antimicrobial compound used in hand sanitizers, soaps and other household products. It’s effective in slowing or stopping the growth of bacteria, fungi and mildew, but there is concern that triclosan may contribute to bacterial resistance and endanger human health by disrupting normal hormone development.

Research elsewhere also has shown that triclosan is passing through some municipal water treatment plants rather than being removed.

So the iGEM team set out to develop a small device that could be used in research labs and wastewater treatment plants to efficiently and economically identify triclosan in water. They envisioned it as an analytical alternative to gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay.)

Their experimental device was designed to work by electronically monitoring the activity of certain enzymes in water samples.  In a normal water sample, there is a predictable pace to enzyme activity, which slows significantly if triclosan is present.

Success at dawn

The summer months flew by as the team members in their various roles scrambled to carry out lab work, interview researchers and consult with experts on the environmental health issues related to triclosan.

Despite the rush to complete the project, things were grinding slowly in the lab. Just one day before the team members were to fly out to Boston, they had yet to succeed in detecting triclosan in water samples.

Freund spent a marathon 16-hour stint in the lab, and sometime just before dawn experienced the “eureka” moment, when the team’s “Fab I” enzyme accurately signaled the presence of triclosan.

“I got it,” Freund said, recalling that moment when exhilaration mixed with exhaustion and he knew that the team would have a functional device to present in Boston.

Competing in Boston

The UC Davis team members were all undergraduate students but because some were a bit older than the undergrad age limit, the team was placed in iGEM’s “overgraduate” division.

The weekend competition included a pre-designed team Wiki page, a 20-minute oral presentation and two poster sessions.

The 2015 UC Davis iGEM team was nominated for, but did not win, first place in the environmental track but was beaten out by the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands in the overgraduate division.

Now recruiting 2016 iGEM team members

Recruitment is now underway for UC Davis’ 2016 iGEM team members, with applications due by Feb. 1.

Freund cautions that while iGEM is rewarding, the rigorous experience is not for the faint of heart.

“It was a huge challenge; it might have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “I found that it required me to really stretch my intellectual muscle, and at times I felt levels of stress I had never experienced before.”

But he also found that the concentrated summer of lab work, which advisors said was the equivalent of a master’s degree research project, immersed him in science in a way not possible in the classroom.

What advice would Freund give to the 2016-iGEM team members?

“Put your dog in the kennel and kiss your loved ones goodbye,“ he said, smiling.

Previously: 

Students take home trophy in synthetic biology competition (2011)

Olive oil sensor wins international competition for student inventors (2014)

Pat Bailey writes about agricultural and veterinary sciences for UC Davis Strategic Communications. Follow her on Twitter @UCDavis_Bailey.

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