Students advance to world championship in synthetic biology competition

University iGEM team presented project to develop protein that helps vitamins bind to rice, making it healthier

10/19/2012 - By: Tiffany Moore
iGEM 2012 Chris Clifford, a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno who is researching the thiamine adhesion protein, works in the lab preparing for the iGEM competition. Photo by Mike Wolterbeek, University of Nevada, Reno.

The University of Nevada, Reno's 2012 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team took top honors in the Americas West division at the Regional Jamboree iGEM competition at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. last weekend.

"It's a really big deal," said David Shintani, one of the team's faculty advisors. "We haven't made it to this level before this year. I'm really proud of our team."

Since April, Team Nevada explored new ways to use rice, a staple crop for half the world's population, to bring nutrients to the malnourished. The team's goal was to produce an adhesion protein that is added to the rice during processing and keeps the nutrients attached through washing. The students focused on four proteins: three found to be lacking from peoples' diets and one for the iGEM competition's proof-of concept. For the proof of concept, they added a starch binding domain to red-florescent protein, which turned the white rice pink. The pink hue provided a visual indicator that the protein successfully adhered to the starch.

"The binding protein will have one side that connects to the starch in the rice, and the other side will connect to the vitamins," said Jasmine Jiang, a student team member who focused on the red-florescent protein and other proteins. "In theory, the adhesive protein could bind to potatoes and other starches, also. We're just focusing on rice because of its popularity."

The demonstration allowed the team to move forward and add the starch binding domain to a number of other proteins, including B12 binding protein, thiamine binding protein and a lysine-rich protein.

"In general, white polished rice is known to be deficient in thiamine and lysine," said Christie Howard, another of the team's faculty advisors. "But lots of people, especially vegetarians, are also deficient in B12. We can customize the rice for vegetarians and those with limited access to nutrient-rich foods by adding the missing components to rice."

The demonstration will also allow them to move on to the international iGEM competition Nov. 2-5 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. They will be competing against teams from all over the world, including teams from Europe, Japan and South America.

The iGEM Competition is run by MIT and is a forum for undergraduates to compete against other colleges and universities to design and engineer new molecules that carry out unique functions which could eventually have further applications.

Team Nevada already sees an opportunity for researching further applications for the binding proteins.

"If this works, it may be possible to bind edible vaccines to rice for easier administration," said team member Joseph Alexander. "Maybe that will be the focus of next year's project."


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