Undergrad Genetic Engineering Project Nabs Gold Medal

International recognition for a newly formed team of students and their effort to control bacteria's dirty work

In its first trip to an international competition, Tufts’ undergraduate synthetic biology team received a gold medal for a genetic engineering project that could have applications for cleaning up oil spills and furthering our understanding of hospital-acquired infections.

The students participated in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) in Boston from Oct. 30 to Nov. 3, when 245 collegiate teams from around the world demonstrated projects they had been working on since the beginning of the summer. The eight-member Tufts team took part in the competition’s health and medicine track.

Synthetic biology, in essence, combines the fields of biology and engineering. “What we do is engineer biological systems to impart new functionality to them,” says team member Peter Cavanagh, A16. “Put most simply, we insert genes into organisms to change their behavior and function in ways that are useful from a scientific or engineering standpoint.”

The hundreds of student teams designed and created new biological parts—also known as “biobricks”—to build their projects and contribute to the field of synthetic biology. The Tufts project involved genetically modifying bacteria to control biofilm formation. Biofilms are produced when bacteria cling to surfaces, begin to multiply and secret a sticky substance: think of a clogged drain or dental plaque growing on teeth. Biofilms are often the culprit in spreading hospital-acquired infections, which affect approximately 2 million people in the U.S. each year and cause thousands of deaths.

The Tufts synthetic biology team offers undergraduates a chance to experience all parts of the scientific research process. “We design our own research projects every step of the way, secure funding for them, secure lab space, purchase materials and equipment, design and find protocols, carry out our projects and present on our research,” says Cavanagh. The group’s advisor is Nikhil Nair, an assistant professor of chemical engineering.

“Working with the syn bio team is incredibly rewarding because we get to direct our own research on whatever topic interests us,” Cavanagh adds. “Over the summer, a few other members and I were working 9-to-5 jobs and then putting in full-time work for iGEM at night and on weekends. But it’s been worth it.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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