The University of Nevada, Reno's International Genetically Engineered Machine team received a silver medal at the 2013 iGEM competition at the University of Toronto, Canada.
The iGEM competition allows undergraduates to develop a research project with living cells to create a new product or process through the use of biotechnology and carry out experiments over the summer and fall semesters. The project is then presented at a national competition where a panel of experts ranks each team on the quality of the project and the presentation.
The Nevada team competed against 215 other universities, including Yale, MIT and U.C. Berkeley. The team was comprised of a core group of 11 undergraduate students from the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology, and Natural Resources that created a research project under the guidance of Christie Howard, director of the biotechnology program and associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Chong Tang, a postdoctoral scholar in the department.
The team's research project focused on exploring ways to kill bacteria that cause diseases in crop plants. The team isolated proteins from the natural predators of these bacteria-bacteriophage viruses and worked with a number of viral proteins to break open the cell walls of gram-negative bacteria. The hope is that this same principle can be used to target bacterial infections on the skin of burn victims. The iGEM students researched the project, conducted experiments, created a website and raised funds for the competition.
"Even though the competition seems very science oriented, there are many other aspects to it," Howard said. "It teaches students that there is a lot more to research than working in a lab. They learn how to fundraise, to talk to the experts in the field and to understand that their work can have an impact on the world."
In order to gain a better understanding of the crop diseases, the team first consulted with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Nevada and then traveled to the University of California, Davis and the University of California, Berkeley to talk with experts in the field of plant pathology.
"This helped the students determine whether or not they were going in the right direction," Howard said. "These experts helped students better structure their project and make it more scientifically sound."
The team of students worked 30 to 40 hours a week throughout the summer in the lab, which they nick-named the 10,000-hour lab. This refers to the "10,000-hour rule," a theory that this is roughly the number of hours it takes to become an expert in one's field.
"At the end of the project, students are taking classes while finishing their research, staying up all night in the lab doing experiments" Howard said. "Typically you only find graduate students doing this."
A substantial portion of the team's funding was provided by the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology, and Natural Resources and the IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, a program for supporting research infrastructure and student training. Even with the CABNR and INBRE funding, students were required to raise money to travel to the competition in Toronto. The iGEM team held fundraising events such as a poker night, which was organized through Cal-Neva. The event raised $2,000. They also raised $1,700 from website fundraising, donating 10 percent of the funds raised online to Sunrise Rotary Club and Rotary International to help fight polio.
"iGEM has been one of the hardest things I have done," Dafne Ordonez, an undergraduate student who has been a member of the University's iGEM team for the past three years, said." I gave up many nights of going out with friends to work in the lab. I am so proud of the work we have done. It gave me a family and skills I will always carry with me."
For more information about the University's 2013 iGEM team go to 2013.igem.org/Team:Nevada.