November 17, 2010
Undergraduates anthrax-killing protein wins international synthetic biology prize
A team of UW students took home the top prize in the Health and Medicine category this month at the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition.
The teams winning creation is a bacterium that has been modified to seek out and destroy anthrax. Built last summer by UW undergraduates, it is now being tested in Maryland by the U.S. Armys Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases.
“These results represent that the UW is becoming a powerhouse in this field,” says graduate student adviser Justin Siegel, a doctoral student in biochemistry.
The UW tied for the health prize with a team from the University of Freiburg in Germany. This year 139 teams traveled to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus for the contest, many from Europe and Asia. The UW and MIT were the only two American schools to win category-specific awards.
Eric Klavins, a UW assistant professor of electrical engineering, has been involved with the UW team since it began three years ago. The growth of the competition, he said, reflects the growth in the field.
“It is fair to say that if there were about five teams in 2004, when the competition started, there were probably five labs in the world that called themselves synthetic biology labs,” Klavins said. “Now there are more than 100 teams, and probably hundreds of labs that would say that at least a portion of what they do is synthetic biology.”
UW student members came from the departments of biochemistry, microbiology, physics, bioengineering and computer science, which reflects the interdisciplinary nature of synthetic biology. This years faculty advisers were Klavins, whose research investigates how bacteria and other systems can self-organize; David Baker, a UW biochemistry professor who predicts proteins 3-D structures in order to design new proteins; Herbert Sauro, a UW bioengineering associate professor who does computer-aided design of biochemical interactions; and Joseph Mougous, UW microbiology assistant professor who studies how tuberculosis and other bacteria infect their hosts.
The competition has teams design and build biological systems that operate in living cells. Each team must document its creations and submit them to the contest organizers for future use. Siegel compares the competitions growing storehouse of parts to a hardware store where teams can browse for tools.
As the storehouse grows, so do the student teams ambitions.
“The projects are getting cooler every year,” Siegel said. “Its pretty amazing.”
The UW team reengineered an enzyme, a protein that acts to speed up a chemical reaction, to rip off anthrax bacteriums protective shield so the bodys immune system can destroy it. A related project took the genetic code for a bacterial defense system that targets other bacteria such as cholera, dysentery and food poisoning, and transplanted it into a harmless strain of E. coli, a bacterium commonly used in research. The idea is to create a nature-inspired antibiotic that can specifically target harmful bacteria, and can kill strains that resist existing antibiotics.
“To get these pieces all together and to get them to express in an easy-to-use organism, thats a huge success, its a huge step forward,” Siegel said. “Particularly for students who had never worked in a lab before.”
Siegel and fellow team leader Ingrid Swanson, a doctoral student in microbiology, recruited students last winter. They held weekly meetings introducing the students to the concept of synthetic biology and visited various UW labs. By spring the team had settled on a project.
Over the summer, students worked in Bakers lab. Team members and graduate advisers met once a week to review the progress. Sean Wu, a freshman in computer science, worked on the project full-time with about a dozen other students.
“From this experience, I learned that science is about making things work,” Wu said. “Its not like your average science lab class where you just go through the procedure, everything works perfectly, and you write up your results. You try it, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesnt.”
At the competition teams are awarded a gold, silver or bronze medal depending on their level of achievement. In its first year, the UW earned a bronze medal. Last year a UW team earned a gold medal (see story). This year the team won another gold and, for the first time, one of the competition-wide category awards.
Wu and senior Chris Eiben in biology will continue to work on the project and hope to publish the results in a scientific journal. Meanwhile, the Army researchers will evaluate whether the UW teams entry might be able to stop antibiotic-resistant strains of anthrax.
“We dont want students to touch or come near any anthrax,” Siegel said. “The cholera-killing microbe is also being tested by microbiologists in Mougous group.”
He is especially concerned since he hopes to recruit them to next years team. Other interested students, faculty and potential sponsors are invited to contact Siegel or Swanson about next years competition.