Yale undergraduates have synthesized a protein that could revolutionize the antifreeze industry.
Yale’s entry in the Internationally Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) is going full force this year. After a year of experimentation and 80-hour work weeks during the summer, the team, led by Aaron Hakim ’13, said they are ready to showcase their project this weekend at the North America iGEM convention in Indianapolis, which brings together hundreds of young scientists from around the nation to showcase their genetic innovations.
“I feel really confident,” Kara Brower ’13 said. “Our project worked, and we are new to the competition. Regardless of whether or not we win, I feel we did really well.”
Created by the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, iGEM is a worldwide synthetic biology engineering competition geared towards undergraduates. Although the Yale chapter of iGEM started just last year and is still not an officially registered student organization, Hakim said their project will demonstrate the team’s ability to successfully compete against MIT and other science-geared schools. He said he hopes their performance this weekend will attract attention and support from scientific organizations around the world.
The Yale project this year involves synthesizing an antifreeze protein. After learning that Danish researchers isolated a protein from a beetle that is able to survive the Siberian cold, the team focused on learning more about it, Hakim said. During the summer the team focused on mass-producing the protein using the model organism E. coli as the host — a difficult feat, Hakim said, because antifreeze proteins do not function well in bacteria. By August the team had successfully produced the protein in a soluble, active form and purified it to isolate it from the rest of the E. coli proteins.
They also mapped the protein’s genetic sequence to show how it stops ice crystals from forming on tissue and tested the protein on liver tissue to demonstrate its effectiveness as an antifreezing agent.
With these results, the team’s protein could have significant industrial applications, Hakim said, for example, in the preservation of transplant tissues. Normally, a transplant has to be performed within a few hours of extraction to prevent the ice from damaging the tissue, but Hakim said the Yale protein would be able to hinder ice damage. He added that it could also extend the growing season of crops.
Along with Darren Zhu, who left Yale after his freshman year to pursue a startup venture in Silicon Valley, Hakim worked on the project over the summer in order to be ready by this weekend’s competition.
“My goal is to make Yale do well on this competition so we can have a good base,” Hakim said. “I want to make iGEM something kids want to do. Instead of having 10 people working on it, let’s have 30 people. But we need funding and infrastructure.”
The team received support from several science departments and secured two Dean’s Research Fellowships for the project, Hakim said. But Brower, who works in two laboratories, said there should be more funding for students who take initiative and pursue their own projects.
Assistant biology professor Farren J. Isaacs, who advises the team, said that he is impressed with the students’ motivation and initiative. 99 percent of the work was done by the students, Issacs said, and he is excited for the competition this weekend.
Other team members include Durga Thakral ’12, Alexander Li ’12, Chidi Akusobi ’12 and Steven Zhu ’14.