WU iGEM Team wins gold at international competition

Meghan Sharma | Contributing Reporter

Washington University’s genetic-engineering undergraduate research team won a gold medal at the international iGEM Giant Jamboree competition in Boston, held from Nov. 9 to Nov. 13.

iGEM, which stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine, has been an annual competition for the past decade, with teams participating from all over the world. Each year, Washington University forms a team in the spring, which then conducts research over the summer. Team members then present their findings at the iGEM Giant Jamboree competition each fall.

Members of the Washington University iGEM team pose at the iGEM Giant Jamboree Competition in Boston. The team received gold at the international competition, held Nov. 9 to Nov. 13.Courtesy of Maddie Lee

Members of the Washington University iGEM team pose at the iGEM Giant Jamboree Competition in Boston. The team received gold at the international competition, held Nov. 9 to Nov. 13.

Washington University’s team spent months researching the effectiveness of certain genes on creating ultraviolet resistance and not only received a gold medal, but also nominations for best environmental project and best hardware prize for undergraduate teams.

According to the team’s faculty advisor, Janie Brennan, a lecturer in the chemical engineering department, iGEM is an avenue for students to craft their own research projects.

“The goal is that students create their own projects that are based on solving whatever problem they want in synthetic biology,” Brennan said. “Synthetic biology is genetic engineering with the idea that we are going to look at genetics like engineers do.”

This year’s team of six undergraduates consisted of sophomores Collin Kilgore and Mark Wang; juniors Alex Yenkin, Maddie Lee and Zoe Orenstein; and senior Micah Rickles-Young. The team’s research focused on cyanobacteria and E. coli’s resistance to UV radiation, and they aimed to improve bacterial survival under increasing UV radiation due to climate change.

At the iGEM Giant Jamboree, Washington University’s team competed with over 300 teams from around the world. According to Rickles-Young, making international connections is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the competition.

“It was cool talking to people from all around the world about the science we all did,” Rickles-Young said.

The team earned a gold medal at the competition by completing various project requirements. Some of these requirements included improving the characterization of a gene, creating a Wikipedia page documenting the project’s progress, talking to community members about the project, collaborating with another team (Wash. U.’s team mostly worked with the University of Chicago’s team) and developing a mathematical model for their research.

The team was also in the top five in the environmental project category and was nominated for the best hardware prize for undergraduate teams.

While the competition is over for this year’s team, applications have already opened to find next year’s iGEM team. Brennan believes that all interested students should apply.

“I think it’s one of the neatest educational activities students can do because they take a project from beginning to end on their own; they work as a team, and they actually do real science,” Brennan said. “You learn it all and figure it all out on your own. You also talk to the community about it. It’s just this really holistic science experience where you learn a whole lot and get to take a lot of ownership of it.”