NatSci students on MSU team that wins silver medal in synthetic biology competition

  • Dec 22, 2017
  • Water, Students, competiton, research
  • Homepage News, Faculty & Staff, Research, Students, Biochemistry, College of Natural Science, Neuroscience

Michigan State University’s International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) team won a silver medal in this year’s competition in Boston.iGEM brings together students from around the world to design a biological solution for some of humanity’s toughest problems.

The iGEM competition challenges teams with two goals: to create a project with elements that will add characterized biological parts to the Registry of Standardized Biological Parts, and to incorporate community outreach and interactive education on iGEM and synthetic biology.

Image of student-built biosensor for water testing

The MSU iGEM 2017 team developed a cost-effective, applied biosensor that can be used by multiple audiences to detect water contaminants in a variety of circumstances. Their efforts resulted  in a silver medal at the competition.

“Participating in iGEM is an amazing opportunity for the students to develop and apply important skills,” said Bjoern Hamberger, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) in the College of Natural Science, and one of the team’s professor mentors. “Over the summer, they are busy coordinating communication to the public and the scientific community, and they collaborate and meet with other teams and design their Wikipedia homepage. All this happens, of course, while crafting prototypes and engineering microbes to test their scientific hypotheses in the lab.”

The MSU team of seven students comes from diverse areas, including chemical engineering, biochemistry and molecular biology, and animal science; they range from a graduating senior, to a high school student who’s planning to attend MSU. NatSci student team members are: Brian Amburn, biochemistry and molecular biology senior; Ciara Fromwiller, neuroscience senior; and Cody Madsen, biochemistry and molecular biology senior.

Motivated by the Flint water crisis, the team developed new technology for water testing: a biosensor that responds with an electric signal when it detects dangerous contaminants. Based on its ability to find “clues” in the water, the project was dubbed “Shewlock Holmes.” The name is also a nod to the microbe the students engineered, a bacterium called Shewanella oneidensis, which can transport electrons across its membranes.

After successfully demonstrating that the genetically engineered “Shewlock” could detect and report hydrogen peroxide, the next steps in the lab aimed at making the measurement system smaller, more affordable and sensitive to a broader range of contaminants.

“iGEM provided the opportunity to perform research that could impact the global community and researchers across multiple disciplines,” said Madsen, who served as team captain. “Additionally, presenting the research on an international platform helped me develop skills in communicating cutting-edge research to a variety of different audiences including the local community and established researchers.”

In addition to Hamberger, BMB faculty members Danny Ducat and Michaela TerAvest, and Tim Whitehead, College of Engineering, also served as project mentors.

Recruiting for the fully funded spots on the 2018 team begins in January.


Banner image: The iGEM project team visited the East Lansing, Mich., Water Treatment Plant to gather information on how to apply its project. Photo courtesy Bjoern Hamberger.