University of Calgary

Beyond the Classroom

iGEM teams multiply for MIT contest

Boris Shabash (left), a bioinformatics student, and Neven Dimic, a chemical engineering student, display

Boris Shabash (left), a bioinformatics student, and Neven Dimic, a chemical engineering student, display a computer simulation of a genetic engineering project they are working on for the iGEM contest.
/ Photo by Ken Bendiktsen

By Grady Semmens

Growth is key to genetic engineering and it is also the name of the game for the University of Calgary’s cadre of undergraduate students taking part in the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Nov. 7 to 9.

This is the third year in row U of C has competed at iGEM and more students are involved than ever before.

“I think we are going to be very successful because we have a diverse and talented group of students who are tackling some unique projects,” says Christian Jacob, a professor in the Bachelor of Health Sciences program and the Department of Computer Science, who has guided the U of C’s involvement in the program since 2006.

The annual competition began in 2003 to involve undergrads in the emerging field of synthetic biology. Teams typically work with a standard set of “biological parts” to design their own strain of bacteria capable of performing novel functions such as detecting poisons or producing pleasant odours.

Last year, U of C’s team received high marks for producing a work of “biological art.” Their Eco.Lisa project used light-sensitive bacteria that glowed when stimulated by a custom-built laser plotter controlled by a computerized drawing program.

This year U of C is sending three teams to MIT including the first iGEM team to focus on ethical issues related to synthetic biology.

“Genetic engineering has enormous potential but there are many ethical, legal, environmental, economic and social issues that still need to be addressed,” says Sibat Khwaja, a biomedical sciences student and member of the “ethics team,” supervised by Community Health Sciences professor Gregor Wolbring.

Meanwhile, nine students from the bioinformatics program and the Schulich School of Engineering have produced a colourful computer simulation to help synthetic biologists test their creations in the virtual world before making them in the wet lab.

“Our program is unique because it uses a visual representation that is easy for a non-computer scientist to understand,” says Boris Shabash, a fourth-year bioinformatics student and leader of the “software team.”

The U of C’s third iGEM team is a traditional “wetware team” that has used iGEM’s genetic toolkit to spawn a strain of E. coli bacteria that can recognize and kill harmful salmonella and meningitis infections.

“Our bacteria has an antibiotic to kill specific targets and at the same time it alerts us to the presence of those cells by glowing red for salmonella and green for meningitis,” says team member Thane Kubik, a biomedical science student.