November 29, 2010

Team honored at international synthetic biology competition

A Johns Hopkins undergraduate team that assembled fragments of DNA in a way that allows cells to respond to electrical “messages” has received honors in an international contest in the emerging field of synthetic biology.

The students competed this month in the latest International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, also known as iGEM 2010. The contest, held at MIT, began in 2004 with just five teams. This year’s event attracted 130 teams and more than 1,900 participants, reflecting the growing interest in synthetic biology, which uses biological parts to turn a living cell into a “machine” that can perform a useful task.

For the second year running, a Johns Hopkins team received a gold medal, awarded to projects that are judged to have met the competition’s highest standards. This year’s team also was designated runner-up in the Best Experimental Measurement category and received an honorable mention in the New Application category.

“This was the ‘World Cup’ of synthetic biology,” said Yizhi Cai, a School of Medicine postdoctoral research fellow who was one of three advisers to the undergraduates. “This team has been completely student-driven. The students got together and picked their project, and many of them worked on it during the summer, even though they received no academic credits or stipend money for their efforts. We’re very proud of what they accomplished.”

Cai pointed out that this year’s 11 team members volunteered their time, borrowed lab space and materials, and completed their project with minimal funding. He said that the students and their faculty advisers hope to obtain additional financial support and lab resources to enhance their next project. “Our goal next year is to be picked as one of the six finalist teams,” Cai said.

At the beginning of the summer, iGEM organizers send each student team a kit of standardized interchangeable biological parts to launch the year’s project. These parts, far too small to be seen with the naked eye, serve as the equivalent of nuts and bolts, or children’s Lego pieces. In this case, however, the pieces are tiny strands of DNA that are capable of carrying out some cellular task, such as triggering the release of a certain protein. The team members in the competition must use biochemical tools to cut and assemble these pieces.

“Each DNA sequence has a particular function that you can use to construct some kind of a system,” said Justin Porter, a junior biophysics major, who served as team leader. “What we decided to do was to make yeast cells voltage-sensitive.”

To demonstrate that their idea works, the students found a way to make the modified yeast cells produce a protein that glows red when an electrical voltage is applied, indicating that a “message” has arrived. The team members said that with further development this concept could have significant practical applications, such as allowing a computer to communicate with cells via electrical voltage, instructing the cells to multiply or to stop growing, for example. The students envision a scientist using a cell phone, while dining in a restaurant perhaps, to send a text message to a lab computer many miles away, instructing it to send voltage to adjust a biology experiment.

“We were pretty excited about this project,” Porter said. “This was our group’s first entry in the iGEM competition, and we were surprised we did so well.”

A faculty adviser to the team, Jef Boeke, a professor in the School of Medicine’s High Throughput Biology Center, said that “the ‘molecular tinkering’ aspect of this activity really motivates students to think outside the box—anything seems possible. That is what makes this activity simultaneously a great educational experience and an opportunity to really think big,” he said. “By leaving the undergrads to their own devices during the project development phase, they will not be inhibited by faculty ‘naysayers.’ One of the amazing aspects of iGEM is how the students won’t be dissuaded by comments that something can’t be done. They just go off and do it instead.”

The other members of the team and their majors are Noah Young, biomedical engineering and applied mathematics; Daniel Wolozny, chemical and biomolecular engineering; Ang “Andy” Tu, biomedical engineering; Henry Ma, biomedical engineering and public health; Arjun Khakhar, biomedical engineering; Roberto Passaro, chemical and biomolecular engineering; Andrew Snavely, neuroscience and cellular and molecular biology; Jonathan LeMoel, biomedical engineering; Kristin Boulier, cellular and molecular biology; and Zheyuan Guo, chemical and biomolecular engineering.

In addition to Cai and Boeke, Marc Ostermeier, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering, was an adviser to the team.