In the three-day International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition last week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Nevada, Reno team presented a project that could potentially put a big dent in mosquito-transmitted diseases such as malaria and West Nile virus that cause more than one million deaths worldwide each year.
Although this was the team's first year in the competition, their work earned a bronze medal, placing them in the company of other bronze-level teams such as MIT, Brown University and Cornell University.
"The team had a great time," said Christie Howard, biochemistry and molecular biology professor and one of the team's advisors. "I think what impressed them most was meeting teams from all over the world and being able to compete on the same level as all of them."
The team's goal was to transform the genes that synthesize cinnamon oil into E. coli and duckweed. The genetically transformed duckweed could then be used as an eco-friendly mosquito killer, both as a larvicide and insecticide. The idea for the project, and the plan to execute it, was developed by the 10 undergraduate students on the team.
"I'm probably most proud of their self-motivation," said Howard. "We've been working on this since June, and the students did a great job of staying focused and getting the work done."
Howard says the most impressive project the team encountered at the competition was that of the overall winner, Cambridge, which engineered E. coli to change color in response to environmental hazards as a detection system to guard against dangers such as heavy metal contaminants.
Other project examples from the 110 teams from around the world include Stanford University's method of balancing T-cell populations in patients that could be therapeutic for those with immune disorders, like cancer or AIDS. Spain's University of Valencia's developed a "bio-screen" consisting of living cells that generate light in response to electrical impulses.
The Nevada iGEM team made enough significant progress toward their goal of completing the genetic pathways into duckweed to earn them a medal-not an easy feat for first-time iGEM competitors.
"We have about $33 left in our account," said Howard. "So it was a little hard to finish. But we made a lot of progress."
Some team members will continue work on the duckweed project if funding becomes available.
Plans for Nevada's entry into next year's competition are already in the works. In the next couple weeks, students will continue their regular Wednesday meetings to start brainstorming project ideas and fundraising plans for 2010. Though many of the team's current students will graduate before the next competition, Howard is excited to see some new faces benefit from the project.
"It teaches them how to become strong molecular biologists," she said. "They'll take all these skills with them after the competition."
The impact the competition has had on this year's team is already clear. Many plan to move on to medical school or graduate school, and some are considering starting their own bioengineering company.
"By competing, they see the future a little more clearly," said Howard. "They see they can accomplish a task if they put their minds to it."
To learn more about the iGEM competition, visit igem.org.