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Northwestern Team Takes Top Honors at Synthetic Biology Competition

Northwestern's 2011 iGEM team

A team of McCormick students took top honors last month at a regional competition for iGEM, an undergraduate synthetic biology competition. Their project: an E. coli-based biosensor that could help detect the presence of a harmful bacteria that lurks on hospital faucets and medical equipment.

The students will now advance to the iGEM 2011 World Championship Jamboree competition, which will be held at MIT on November 5-7.

Participants in iGEM (the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) are given a kit of biological parts early in the summer from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, a collection of “mix-and-match” genetic parts.

Students work at their schools over the next several months, using the kits – and new parts they design themselves – to build synthetic biology devices and systems, and operate them in living cells.

Northwestern’s team – Valerie Chen (biomedical engineering, ’13), Nirmit Desai (biological sciences, ’13), Rafay Faruqi (biomedical engineering, ’12), Kristin Palarz (biology and integrated sciences, ’14), Helen Shen (biomedical engineering, ’12), and Michael Sherer (biomedical engineering, ’13) – used E. coli to design a biosensor that can detect the presence of Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

A common bacteria, Pseudomonas thrives in hospitals and can cause infections like pneumonia, gastrointestinal infections, and skin lesions. While tests for the bacteria do exist, they tend to be slow and expensive. The team sought to create a faster, cheaper alternative.

Working in a lab in Tech’s basement, the students took genes used in the Pseudomonas’ quorum sensing system and transferred them into E. coli so the E. coli would fluoresce when it comes into contact with auto-inducer molecules unique to Pseudomonas.

The weekend of October 9-10, the team traveled to Indianapolis to compete against 70 other teams at iGEM’s regional competition for North and South America. In addition to their E. coli research, Northwestern’s team presented a generalized math model for quorum sensing that would allow their work to be applied not just to Pseudomonas, but other pathogens as well.

“Eventually you could have one E. coli with all of these different things inside them and have a one-size-fits-all detector for multiple amounts of pathogens,” Faruqi said.

That math model stood out to the judges, the students said; Northwestern’s team received a gold medal – the highest award-level given, and was allowed to advance to iGEM’s world competition. The team also received the honor of Best Model in the Americas.

The iGEM 2011 World Championship Jamboree competition will be held November 5-7 at MIT.

The iGEM project is advised by Joshua Leonard, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering; John Mordacq, Distinguished Senior Lecturer in the biological sciences department; Michael Jewett, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering; Keith Tyo, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering; and Nichole Daringer, a graduate student in the department of chemical and biological engineering.

View the presentation given by the Northwestern iGEM team in Indianapolis.

-- Sarah Ostman