U of A team wins synthetic biology award
A student group from the faculties of medicine & dentistry, science and engineering were the only Canadian team and one of just three North American squads to take home an award from the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition at MIT in Boston on Nov. 2.
“They kicked butt,” said the team’s supervisor Mike Ellison, a professor of biochemistry in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.
iGEM, as it’s known, is the premiere undergraduate synthetic biology competition. Some of the top universities in the world, like Cambridge, Stanford and Harvard, send 112 teams to compete.
“The competition is very steep,” said Ellison. “It’s also gotten far more professional in terms of the scientific quality over past years. It’s a tough grind.”
The U of A squad developed a rapid automated method for gene assembly that is 100 times faster than state-of-the-art equipment used by scientists now. While Cambridge won the grand prize, the
U of A group won one of six track prizes, called Best Foundation Advance.
“I think to most people’s mind this is the most prestigious of the track prizes because it represents the best foundational advance for an enabling technology in synthetic biology, so it’s a really forward-thinking prize and the competition was pretty stiff for this one,” said Ellison. “We beat 21 universities outright to get it. On that list there was Berkeley, Heidelberg, MIT, University College, London, Kyoto, Paris and, most importantly, Calgary.”
Their project is also getting an incredible reaction from fellow scientists.
“We actually had an invitation from a professor at MIT to return next semester and give a talk about our project and what work we will hopefully have accomplished by then,” said Justin Fedor, a PhD student in biochemistry who was a part of the winning crew.
On their way home they met a professor from Ottawa who wanted to buy their invention because he could use it “right now.” This machine will someday be used in high-school and first-year university labs, says Ellison.
“We won this award because it was clear in all the judges’ minds that this was a significant contribution to the field,” said Ellison.
This success didn’t come without hardships though. The students started the project 10 months ago and Fedor admits there were times they didn’t think they’d get it finished.
“We had to troubleshoot so many different things and we’d think we’d have it solved on one front, and then the gates would open up on another front and the whole project would be in jeopardy again,” said Fedor. “But we worked around it, wormed our way through and we got some positive results in the end that were presentable and eventually kicked butt.”