UW Today

November 8, 2011

Engineered critters bring 'world' title to UW team

Story on last years win for the 2010 team.

Photos of team members and advisers

Their uniforms are lab coats. They dont have a team cheer, but 23 UW students and their five advisers were on cloud nine Nov. 7 when they won the World Championship in what is called synthetic biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We were so excited. We were sitting there on pins and needles,” explained Liz Stanley, a senior majoring in microbiology.  UW Today interviewed the students by phone while they waited to board a plane in Boston for their triumphant trip home to Seattle.

Liz Stanley, a senior majoring in microbiology, accepts the brick trophy on a Boston stage Nov. 7 for the iGEM team's 'World Champion' win in genetic engineering. The brick is a symbol of the molecular components that are used in synthetic biology.

Their work in iGEM included months of lab work and genetic engineering of microbes – one to produce diesel fuel and another to help treat the difficult digestion problems for people with gluten intolerance.

Sean Wu, a sophomore, is majoring in computer science and biochemistry. Sean was on last years team, which also won but did not win the World championship. Sean thinks the communication and presentation part of the competition was remarkably important.

“The clarity of presenting data made so much difference,” Wu said. One of the teams advisers, Justin Siegel, said working with the enthusiastic undergrad students was one of the highlights of his career. Siegel will graduate with a doctorate this year. Two other advisers are Ingrid Swanson Pultz and Rob Egbert, who will also graduate.

But Justin hopes many of the students will return for the 2012 team.

The research done by these students will likely be published in a peer-reviewed science journal, just as it was for last years team. This kind of accomplishment is rare for undergraduates and will boost their resumes, he said.

“Oh yeah.  Putting ‘world champion on your resume is great.”

UW undergrad members came from the departments of biochemistry, microbiology, bioengineering, materials science and computer science, which reflects the interdisciplinary nature of synthetic biology. This years faculty advisers were Eric 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 and Herbert Sauro, a UW bioengineering associate professor who does computer-aided design of biochemical interactions.