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Putting science to work solving real-world problems – and winning awards

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The University of Lethbridge has been sending teams of students to compete in the iGEM Jamboree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston for the last 10 years.

At the competition sponsored by iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation), student teams by the hundreds gather from around the world to present their latest projects in synthetic biology or genetically engineered machines.

You may have no clue about synthetic biology or genetically engineered machines, but you no doubt understand what it means to come home with gold from an international competition. Given the winning history of the U of L teams over the last few years, it would be easy to say there’s a dynasty in the making.

Taylor Sheahan is a PhD candidate at the University of Lethbridge who participated in the 2016 and 2017 iGEMs. Both times, her teams brought home gold medals.

Sheahan has degrees in chemical and biomedical engineering. To me, synthetic biology and genetically engineered machines, in the simplest terms, just means combining those different disciplines of biology and engineering to try to solve real-world problems by designing new systems or machines to actually achieve that goal.

We’re talking about biological systems and living machines at the molecular level, using bits of DNA, RNA, bacteria, proteins and other fun stuff.

Last year, Sheahan’s team spent the summer working on its project, a nano-strip that could test for pathogens in emergency vehicles.

We were approached by the local fire department and EMS because they were concerned about how clean their vehicles actually are, the safety of their workers and if they’re transporting these pathogens back to their families, said Sheahan.

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The students continue to refine this nano-strip with hopes of commercializing the invention.

For their 2017 iGEM project, Sheahan’s team focused on the ambitious goal of making synthetic biology available to everyone, from teachers to do-it-yourself hobbyists to scientists working in state-of-the-art labs.

Sheahan calls it a cell free system. What we’re doing is providing a new tool for synthetic biologists that’s also safer as it is not using a living cell, which is traditionally the platform used for synthetic biology.

Bioethics and biosecurity are key components that the teams must address as they prepare their presentations for the judges. For example, this new tool could be useful in biocontainment, but there could also be biosecurity issues.

As Sheahan points out, We’re in contact with the Public Safety Department of Canada, as well as other regulatory groups. We’re trying to address these concerns and start a movement towards how these are regulated because currently they’re not included in any of our legislation.

Along with the gold medal for its project, the team received the Biosafety and Biosecurity Commendation, a shout-out from the FBI, and nominations in the categories of Best Software, Best Human Integrated Human Practices, and Best Education and Public Engagement.

The scientist who has mentored these iGEM teams over the last decade is Dr. Hans-Joachim Wieden. He holds the Alberta Innovates Strategic Chair in Bioengineering in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Lethbridge and is director of the Alberta RNA Research and Training Institute.

This year’s iGEM win brings the medal total to 10 gold, with high school teams contributing a silver in 2017 and a bronze in 2016. The 2017 high school team used synthetic biology to investigate environment-friendly printer inks based on plant pigments and engineered e.coli bacteria.

When asked to reveal his secret to iGEM success, Wieden enthusiastically says it’s because the students own their projects. They pick topics of social relevance or that are relevant to them or their communities. When you look at the emergency vehicle thing, that affects everyone. When you look at tailings ponds and anything to do with major sources of the economy, the students are really invested in these projects. So I think they all have ownership and they really want to do their best.

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The teams have gone on to form three companies to further develop their projects. This is not just about training scientists, says Wieden. This is about training the next generation of bioengineers and entrepreneurs.

Other iGEM projects have touched on engineered organisms to degrade toxic compounds in tailings ponds, repair damaged neurons in the brain after stroke, and prevent damage from Fusarium graninearum (Fg) in wheat and corn.

The iGEM program is supported across the province by Alberta Innovates.

Veteran broadcast and online journalist Cheryl Croucher produces InnovationAnthology.com, which can be heard online and on CKUA Radio. This is the first in a 10-part series sponsored by Alberta Innovates.

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