Working with genetically modified E. coli and separating DNA – it’s all in a summer day’s work for the iGEM team at Gaston Day School.
The group of six are painstakingly preparing for the 2012 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) synthetic biology competition.
Most weekdays during summer vacation, Steven Allen, Parth Patel, Will Reiber, Samuel DuBois, Gordon Ellison and Audrey Weiss crowd into Anne Byford’s Gaston Day classroom lab, jotting down experiment results and measuring DNA and RNA.
Their goal: To create a kit farmers can use on-site to detect high levels of cadmium in water. Last year, the group developed a kit to detect nitrates.
“We’re hoping to help local citizens in agricultural areas,” said Steven Allen, 16, a rising junior. To test water now, samples are taken and sent to a lab for results. Those results can take weeks to get back, Steven said.
Some of the dangers associated with high levels of nitrates include methemoglobinemia (a blood disorder) and death in humans, and spontaneous abortion in livestock, Byford said. Cadmium consumption can lead to stomach irritation and kidney damage in humans, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Gaston Day’s 2012 competition kit uses a fluorescent protein that turns green if cadmium is detected.
“This is the real world,” Byford said. “They are dealing with common experimental errors ... and have to be consistently accurate.”
This isn’t the school’s first run in the competition. The team is actually building on years of research. Gaston Day’s team was the first high school team to compete in the collegiate competition in 2009. In 2011, iGEM expanded to include a high school division, yet Gaston Day remained in the college portion, going up against teams from MIT, Harvard, Cornell and Duke.
In 2011, 165 teams from around the world competed. The Gaston Day team won a silver award, along with 24 other teams, for its nitrate detector, and won the safety commendation for the Americas division.
“We spend a lot of time preparing for this competition,” said Will, 16, a rising sophomore.
For iGEM, at the beginning of the summer, all student teams get a physical kit of biological parts from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts.
The registry is a bank of genetic parts that can be mixed and matched to create synthetic biology devices and systems. The MIT-based registry, created in 2003, aims to make biology easier to engineer for the use of iGEM teams and academic labs. Teams then use the parts and new parts of their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.
Over the years, iGem projects have ranged from banana- and wintergreen-scented bacteria (just because the students could create them); to an arsenic biosensor to help detect arsenic in water; to BactoBlood, a cost-effective red blood cell substitute created from engineered E. coli bacteria.
Why do they do it? “It’s the fact that we are manipulating something we can’t see,” said Steven, a second-time iGEM competitor.
Next up for the team is a competition called the North America East Regional Jamboree, in October in Pittsburgh. If they win, they advance to the World Championship Jamboree in November. More information: igem.org.