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U of M biology students take gold award in MIT contest to create biological machines

November 15, 2010

A Minnesota team of five College of Biological Sciences (CBS) undergraduates captured a gold award earlier this month at the recent International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition hosted annually by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The CBS team was recognized for showing how to build protein-based micro-compartments in E coli bacteria that could be used as nanobioreactors to carry out metabolic functions or synthetic reactions.

“Their reactor has potential practical applications in medicine, energy, industry, agriculture and other areas,” said faculty advisor Claudia Schmidt-Dannert, professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics and member of the BioTechnology Institute, which sponsored the U of M team. “We plan to build on this project for next year’s competition.”

Members included CBS juniors Matthew Adams and Rachel Farr, and CBS seniors Anthony Goering, Annie Kathuria and Ian Windsor. Adams, Farr and Goering are majoring in genetics, cell biology and development; Kathuria in genetics and neuroscience; and Windsor in biochemistry.

This year’s competition, the largest in the event’s seven-year history, attracted 130 teams from 25 countries for a total of more than 2,000 students. Teams were challenged to design, build and test a biological system that could operate within a cell. The students convened at MIT in November for a jamboree to present their projects and learn how they fared in the contest.

“Our students worked very hard over the summer and put together a fantastic project,” said advisor Jeff Gralnick, assistant professor of microbiology and BTI member. “The U of M team was very competitive with larger, better-funded teams. Our endeavor was funded through the Biocatalysis Initiative. We hope to add to this by identifying sponsors outside the university.”

Slovenia took the first place trophy for their project to control a sequence of reactions in a biosynthetic pathway. China and England were runners up. Nineteen awards, including Minnesota’s gold award, were made in specific categories.

In addition to Schmidt-Dannert and Gralnick, the group was advised by postdoctoral research associates Swati Choudhary, Ethan Johnson and Poonam Srivastava, who work in the Schmidt-Dannert lab. Johnson, who died from injuries sustained in a hit-and-run car accident in September, received special thanks from members of the group on their iGEM project website, http://2010.igem.org/Team:Minnesota.

The tribute to Johnson states that he "He nurtured the talents of us all…and made us better scientists."

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The team of five College of Biological Sciences (CBS) undergraduate students that captured a gold award earlier this month at the recent International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition hosted annually by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

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