Emory Students Research International Genetically Engineered Machines

A team of Emory undergraduate researchers are headed to Boston, Massachusetts to compete in the iGEM competition.

By Jiayue (Joy) Qiu 20C

The Emory iGEM Team is an undergraduate, student-led research group whose focus is to conduct innovative research in synthetic biology and present at the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) in Boston, MA in Fall. This competition has been held for 15 years, and as of last year, more than 300 institutes from around the world were significantly involved. iGEM connects biologists and engineers all over the globe from high school and undergraduate students to graduate students and professional scholars. It aims to get more people involved with the wonders of biotechnology and give students practical experience to apply their knowledge in synthetic biology to solve real life problems.

What makes an iGEM research experience different from other on-campus research experience is that we are a student-run research team. For most of undergraduate students at Emory, to get involved with research, we would need to find a research lab which is open to undergraduates and do whatever work the lab asks us to do, and it may not be what we are actually passionate about. In the iGEM team, we learn how to develop our own project as a group step by step, from brainstorming to literature research, and after we determine our topic we need to promote our project and do social outreach to let the general populace understand basic biology knowledge, which is required by iGEM competition known as “human practices.” As some of our teammates summarized, being in the iGEM feels just like working for a startup company. The experience of iGEM cultivates future scientists, social activists and entrepreneurs.

Bronze Medal Awarded

Dr. Ichiro Matsumura

Dr. Ichiro Matsumura, Emory associate professor of biochemistry

Last year, our relatively small team consisting of one faculty member (Dr. Ichiro Matsumura from the Emory School of Medicine), one graduate student and four undergraduate students traveled to Boston in November to represent Emory University in this prestigious competition for the first time. Our research proposed a type of bacteria called Acinetobacter baylyi to be a cost-effective model organism compared to the more commonly used E. coli. With this study, underfunded labs would be able to conduct synthetic biology more economically. For our efforts, we received a bronze medal, which was a great accomplishment for us especially for our first appearance.

This accomplishment also encourages more students to participate. Our team has tripled in size this year, so we hope to use this momentum to conduct even more complex projects and get even more impressive results.

The 2017 iGEM Competition

Our project this year focuses on water security which is essential to our environment and sustainability. We are working with The WaterHub at Emory, which is an excellent example of an efficient system that recycles much of the water that we often consider waste. It provides Emory with almost 40% of its water supply, and has saved Emory quite a bit of money.

We hope to make this process even more efficient. The managers of the WaterHub have voiced their concerns about some of the issues they have been facing while running the system. One such problem is finding a way to deal with phosphate levels in the water without having to manually add chemicals. Another is figuring out how to decrease calcium ion levels in the water tanks. Calcium contributes to the hardness of water and ultimately leads to inefficient purification as its levels rise. We are hoping to learn more about the WaterHub’s existing phosphate and calcium levels through phosphate and calcium colorimetric assays. We also plan to create engineered bacteria that can accumulate phosphates, and produce proteins that can bind calcium ions. By tackling these problems, we believe we can help the WaterHub support Emory even more and create a solution that will undoubtedly lead to a safer and more secure future.

Editor’s Note: The Emory iGEM team is fundraising and seeking to connect with alumni in this space. Qiu writes, “we would greatly appreciate if our wonderful alumni would provide us with advice of any kind or direct us to anyone who may be able to help.” Please contact her at jiayue.qiu@emory.edu.