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Now in 2nd year, iGEM team looks to November competition

By
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Entering its second year, Brown’s International Genetically Engineered Machine competition team is brainstorming projects for the iGEM competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in November. The seven undergraduate members of the squad are employing the help of last year’s members, several graduate students, faculty members and Pfizer’s Houseknecht lab.

The iGEM competition began almost four years ago as several research scientists wondered whether it was possible to build operable biological systems from standard parts. They wanted to create an accessible “library” of parts, helping to provide an engineering perspective on biology, said Assistant Professor of Medical Science Alexander Brodsky, one of the Brown team’s faculty mentors.

Brown’s iGEM team is the brainchild of John Cumbers GS, who first heard about the competition at a conference. He then gathered together enthusiastic undergraduates and faculty members for Brown’s first team, which received an honorable mention at the 2006 competition.

The new team will stay in Providence this summer, developing projects for the competition in November. The undergraduates will be supported by a group Undergraduate Research and Teaching Award.

As of now, the team has raised about $40,000 of the $70,000 it needs to fund its research, said Deepa Galaiya ’08, a team member. Laboratory funds have been donated from the Office of the President and various departments, Galaiya said.

Pfizer has not as yet opened its purse to the team, though it has contributed some scientific guidance, Cumbers said. But he said the team still hopes for some funding from the pharmaceutical giant.

For last year’s competition, the team created a kind of bacterial “freeze tag,” using three different chemicals to stop bacteria from moving. Though this year’s project has not yet been decided on, possibilities include a cellular oscillator for timing the distribution of drugs into the body’s systems, Cumbers said.

Last year’s team faced hurdles in acquiring funding and lab space, Cumbers said, but he said this year’s team has benefited from the previous experience and has been able to focus more on research.

Though faculty mentors and Houseknecht lab researchers provide some practical expertise, Cumbers said, the team largely works the project’s problems out on its own, he said.

“We don’t want too many faculty involved, but they’re all there to let us borrow equipment,” said Jeffrey Hofmann ’08, team member and computational biology major.

“The team has an opportunity to do research in a very independent way,” Brodsky said.

Members said they were excited by potential developments in the fast-developing field of synthetic biology.

“Synthetic biology is very important. It could be the next computer revolution in terms of standardizing parts and making bacteria do what we want them to,” said Adam Emrich ’08, a team member.

Galaiya said participating in the iGEM competition is a “wonderful opportunity” to get practical experience in research. “We read journals and familiarize ourselves with big names in the field, which is good preparation for future work,” she said.

Many of the participants hope to work in research in the future, Galaiya said.

Some team members, interested in studying the field of synthetic biology further, advocated for a new class set to debut in the fall, BIOL 1940T: “Synthetic Biological Systems.” The course will primarily be taught by Gary Wessel, professor of biology and one of the team’s faculty sponsors.

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