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BME undergraduates participate in iGEM 2012 competition

September 7, 2012

Two Johns Hopkins undergraduate teams will participate in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) 2012 competition, annually organized by MIT. Teams Johns Hopkins-Wetware and Johns Hopkins-Software will work independently throughout the 2012 year to complete the projects.

iGEM team group portrait

The iGEM competition is a worldwide Synthetic Biology competition specifically targeted to undergraduate students. The goal of the competition is to build simple biological systems from standard, interchangeable parts and operate them in living cells. Using a library of standardized parts (BioBrick standard biological parts), student teams are asked to design and build genetic machines. Teams may also submit their own BioBricks.

The BME team Johns Hopkins-Wetware members James Chuang (BME 2014), Margo Heston (BME 2015), Jerry Wang (BME 2015), Jake Kim (MCB 2013), Anne Marie Noronha (MCB 2013) and Scott Tan (MCB 2013) will develop tools for yeast synthetic biology in both the academic and industrial settings. The optogenetic cell cycle control system in S. cerevisiae (budding yeast) will replace outside chemicals that are current standard for inducing cell arrest. In addition, the team will address the loss of viability of yeast cells due to ethanol toxicity concern by developing a genetic tool that will regulate the production of ethanol.

The BME team Johns Hopkins-Software members Xiaotian 'Album' Shen (BME, 2014), George Chen (BME, 2015), Emily Scher (CS, 2015) and Robert Eisinger (CS, 2013) will build AutoGene. AutoGene is a cloud based Computer Aided Design (CAD) tool that will streamline the information visualization, design process and fabrication workflow of synthetic DNAs.

James Chuang (BME 2014) shares a student's perspective on the educational impact of the iGEM competition. James commented, "I think the great thing about iGEM is that we as students have creative control over the projects. Because of this, I feel really invested in the projects and motivated to learn as much as I can about the organism and the genetic parts we want to work with. After all, you have to know at least a little bit about the biology behind the things you're working with before you start building things with them. Actually building the genetic constructs you design is a whole other learning experience, from learning how to carry out basic protocols to designing your own experiments. Along the way we are guided by our advisors, who are always happy to give us advice or drop some knowledge."

Dr. Yizhi Cai, an Autodesk distinguished scholar at the High Throughput Biology Center at JHU, has lead the Johns Hopkins iGEM team since 2010. Dr. Yizhi stated, "we see that iGEM provides unique research experiences to undergraduate students. The students come up with their own ideas, carry out the research throughout the year, and learn to communicate their projects to the world. In past years, our top notch BME students have competed very well in this competition, last year ranking in the top 16 out of 120 teams, and I hope they will continuously show case their excellence to the world this year."

Additional iGEM team members include mentors Drs. Jef Boeke (HiT Center, School of Medicine), Leslie Mitchell (HiT Center, School of Medicine), Joel Bader (BME), Giovanni Stracquadanio (BME), Marc Ostermeier (ChemBE), Debra JH Mathews (Berman Institute of Bioethics) and Karen Zeller (MBG) as well as student mentors Steffi Liu (BME), Andy Tu (BME) and Daniel André Wolozny Gómez (ChemBE).

There are 193 teams worldwide registered for the iGEM 2012 competition. The JHU teams are among 44 in the Americas East Region Jamboree to be held in October at the Institute of Biological Engineering in Pittsburgh, PA. Finalists will compete at the World Championship Jamboree in November at MIT in Cambridge, MA.

The JHU teams have been generously supported by the Johns Hopkins University Department of Biomedical Engineering, Student Initiative Fund, Provost Undergraduate Research Award, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship, as well as outside sponsors Autodesk, Integrated DNA Technologies and Genscript.

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