A team of 11 undergraduate students from Rensselaer became the first team ever from the university to successfully participate in iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, which culminated in the annual iGEM Giant Jamboree in November. More than 3,000 students in 310 teams from 44 countries took part in the five-day event, held in Boston, which included oral presentations, poster presentations, and workshops.

The iGEM competition challenges students to work in multidisciplinary teams to solve real-world problems using synthetic biology. Using standard biological parts called BioBricks, iGEM teams build genetically engineered systems that address challenges in environmental bioremediation, medical diagnostics systems, and biofuels, as well as software and hardware.

The Rensselaer team earned a bronze medal award for its manufacturing project demonstrating that selective modification of the yeast Starmerella bombicola MFE-2 gene improves the efficiency of sophorolipid production. Sophorolipids are a non-toxic and biodegradable alternative to conventional petroleum-derived surfactants and detergents.

“This unique event combined the spirit of the Olympics with the rigor of a genetic engineering science fair,” said team founder Douglas Meadow, biomedical engineering major, who, along with Krystyna Farrell, chemical engineering major, led the team.

Members of the multidisciplinary team brought diverse skill sets in cellular biology, bioinformatics, analytical chemistry, and metabolic/enzyme engineering to the project, whose fields of inquiry included genetics, synthesis and identification of molecules, and metabolic pathway engineering.

In addition to Meadow and Farrell, team members included Ian Fralen, business and management major; Megan Gupta, biology; Leah Henegar, biochemistry and biophysics; Cameron Kee, biology; Stephanie Lee, biochemistry and biophysics; Helen Merricks, biology; Genesis Moran, industrial and management engineering; Maily Nguyen, biomedical engineering; and Blossom Wong, bioinformatics and molecular biology.

Faculty advisers to the team were Mattheos Koffas, professor of chemical and biological engineering, and Richard Gross, professor of chemistry and chemical biology. Additional advisers included doctoral student Fei Liu, as well as postdoctoral fellows Jian Zha and Shekar Mekala.

“This is a great distinction for RPI, especially since it is the first time RPI has participated in this competition,” said Koffas. “The undergraduate team worked hard on this project for several months, and Douglas Meadow, Krystyna Farrell, and Stephanie Lee traveled to Boston to present their work to a crowd of students from all over the world.”

The International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology, education and competition, and the development of an open community and collaborations. The iGEM Competition began in 2003 as an independent study course at MIT. The course became a summer competition with five teams in 2004; it has now expanded to 310 teams, reaching more than 40 countries.