Nine undergraduates from the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department team recently returned from competing against international teams in the 2012 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) contest at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
"The judges and other teams were very impressed with our project," David Shintani, associate dean in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources and one of the team's faculty advisors, said. "We made an especially big impression on people from Asian countries who saw the importance of our project."
This international competition challenges students to engineer a new product or process using synthetic biology. This year's team produced a protein designed to bind B12 or thiamine to white rice, a grain that is rich in carbohydrates, but is lacking in vitamin content. This method will pave the way toward providing a useful means of grain supplementation in countries which depend on white rice as a primary staple.
Team member Ronald Truong experienced the amazement and attention from their competitors first-hand.
"One thing that really stood out to me was that people from other teams were very interested in our project," he said. "People from around the world came to us and said, 'Wow, how did you even come up with this?' This really made us feel like we were special."
Truong was one of the students competing internationally for the first time, and he's already looking ahead to next year.
"We had a great time and got to meet a lot of people who shared the same interest as us," he said. "We met people from around the world and really connected with them. The competition was exciting and motivating. Seeing what other people around the world did with synthetic biology really inspired us to go back next year and shine!"
Team Nevada already sees an opportunity for researching further applications for the binding proteins, and for returning to MIT.
The team plans to continue this project in the spring with the goal of publishing a research paper.
"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."
The 2012 Nevada iGEM team won a gold medal for their project at the regional competition held in October in at Stanford University. The Nevada team was also one of eight teams from the region, including Stanford, UC Berkeley and UC Davis, invited to the international competition at MIT
The iGEM team is just one example of the many opportunities students have to experience undergraduate research at the University, and the Office of Undergraduate and Interdisciplinary Research is working to increase the number of opportunities.
Michael Collopy, Assistant Vice President for Research at the University, encourages students to get involved in research.
"We have found that undergraduates that get involved with research projects typically have a great experience, both conducting their research and working with their faculty mentors," he said. "We believe it increases retention and stimulates interest in pursuing advanced degrees in graduate school, law school, and medical school."