One day over the summer, David Lim ’13 brought a sleeping bag to his biology lab to complete a 20-hour procedure.
Lim’s scientific dedication was part of his work on Yale’s research team for the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, which invites groups of students to submit original synthetic biology research projects. Yale’s team attended the regional competition in Pittsburgh on Oct. 12-14, where it won the award for “Best Presentation.” The team expects to submit its research for publication by the end of the month and will advance to the iGEM world championship held the first weekend of November, said team member Aaron Hakim ’13 in an email to the News.
“We do good science not just because we like to win these competitions,” team member Aaron Lewis ’14 said. “We do good science because we’re excited to do good science, and then we are happy when we get immediately gratifying results in competitions.”
The team’s goal was to improve a procedure called multiplex automated genome engineering (MAGE), which generates genomic diversity in organisms, said team member Spencer Katz ’13. MAGE, a repeating procedure that uses random genetic mutations to optimize chosen cell functions, was developed a few years ago in part by the team’s faculty advisor, Farren Isaacs, assistant professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology. The team wanted to set up a framework for applying this technique to two species of bacteria commonly used in industry, Lim and Hakim said.
By the regional competition, the team had succeeded in creating a library of recombinases — enzymes used by MAGE to modify genetic material — and an array of tests for determining the impact of these recombinases, Katz said. The next step is to implement MAGE with the library of recombinases and the tests, a task they hope to complete by November’s world championship, he added.
Isaacs said Yale’s iGEM team has been working hard toward their goal.
“They are pioneers, both in genome engineering and microbiology,” he said in an email.
Katz said the iGEM team’s project has applications in industry and beyond. For instance, MAGE could be applied to bacteria that dissolve oil in water, creating a strain of bacteria even better at dissolving oil than the original organism, Lim said.
iGEM sees itself as a key player in the developing industry of synthetic biology, Meagan Lizarazo, vice president of iGEM, said.
“Synthetic biology is going to become an industry,” Lizarazo said. “There are going to be companies, there are going to be careers in it. It’s going to expand greatly, and iGEM is going to be at the core of it.”
By participating in the iGEM research team, Lewis said he learned of this emerging field. Lewis said iGEM also helped him find his focus as a student.
“Before joining iGEM and going to the conferences, I didn’t appreciate how much engineering had come to influence biology,” he said.
Isaacs said iGEM provides students with valuable learning experiences in teamwork and collaboration. By reading scientific papers and working through procedures on his own, Lim said he learned more through the iGEM process than he would have by taking microbiology courses.
“I think this is the way science is best learned,” he said. “It was pretty awesome.”
Last year’s iGEM project, which investigated an antifreeze protein, was published in the scientific journal “Structural Biology and Crystallization Communications” in May.