Student team wins gold in synthetic biology competition

ASU iGEM team wins gold at regional competition

A team of Arizona State University undergraduates earned a gold medal and a spot in the international championship event for one of the world’s premiere student engineering and science competitions. In addition, the ASU team won the prestigious “Best Human Practices Advance” award. This award is presented to teams working to find new ways to help people address the impacts of ongoing advances in biotechnology.

The nine-member interdisciplinary team is aiming to win the grand prize – the BioBrick Trophy – at the 2012 International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) World Championship.

The team’s stellar performance last weekend at the regional event held at Stanford University sends it to the iGEM World Championship Jamboree. The competition will be held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November 2 to 5. Of 24 teams that competed in iGEM Americas West Regional Jamboree, only eight move forward to the championship event. There, the group will face 65 teams from the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

“We are simply overjoyed at how well our team worked together,” shared Maddie Sands, an anthropology major in the university’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change. “All of our team members are passionate and talented individuals. We are truly dedicated to creating positive change in the world around us through scientific advances.”

The contest focuses on synthetic biology and challenges students to design and build simple biological systems. ASU team members are developing portable, low-cost biosensor systems to detect pathogens in water supplies. Pathogens are organisms that can cause serious disease in other organisms, including humans.  The group is particularly focused on detecting pathogens that cause diarrhea since worldwide, diarrheal disease is among the leading causes of death among children under the age of five.

“I think we were able to stand out from the crowd,” said Nisarg Patel, a molecular biosciences and biotechnology major in School of Life Sciences, as well as a political science major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “First, we created a project aimed at addressing an immediate global issue. Second, we realized that developing a biosensor is just part of the solution in reducing childhood diarrhea – and so we also focused on education. Finally, our group was unique in that everyone played a part in presenting our research, and other teams did not use that strategy.”

Each team was given 20 minutes to present its research, after which a panel of judges asked detailed questions about specific aspect of the projects.  Then, teams presented posters and fielded more questions by the judges.

In 2011, ASU’s first iGEM team earned a bronze medal in the regional event – delivering an exceptional performance for a school new to the competition, but it was not enough to move up to the next level. This year, the team had to overcome several hurdles. The students had to recruit several new team members, secure sponsors, start a working lab from the ground up, find their own workspace and coordinate time dedicated to their research.

The foundation the students built last year, as well as this year's effort to strengthen the team, paid off.

“We were the underdogs coming into this competition,” stated Hyder Hussain, a biomedical engineering major in Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “Even though our project was not as complex as others, and we are still perfecting the design, the judges saw great promise in our project and were quite impressed.”

The team plans to continue research prior to the international competition. Students will be completing production and conducting tests on the biosensors. The group also has plans to improve the “human practice advances” portion of their presentation. Faculty advisor Karmella Haynes and graduate advisor James Alling will travel with the team to MIT.

The ASU iGEM team includes: biomedical engineering majors Abhinav Markus, Ethan Ward, Amanda Ispas, and Hyder Hussain; chemistry and biochemistry majors Ryan Muller and Ellen Qin; biochemistry major Rohit Rajan; anthropology major Madeline Sands, and Nisarg Patel, who is majoring in political science and molecular biosciences and biotechnology.  The team’s advisors include Karmella Haynes, Vincent Pizziconi, and Xiao Wang, professors in School of Biological & Health Systems Engineering, and graduate student and research associates James Alling, also in School of Biological & Health Systems Engineering, and Rene Davis from the Biodesign Institute.

Arizona State University iGEM team sponsors include School of Life Sciences; Barrett, The Honors College; Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering; School of Biological Health Systems and Engineering; College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; School of Politics and Global Studies; and Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry.