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A GEM of a Summer Project

By Office of Communication Services    Published on 12/31/2008 More stories >>

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UH-Manoa students Margaret Ruzicka, Krystle Salazar, and Grace Kwan were named Best Rookie Team at the 2008 iGEM competition held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Photo courtesy of Gernot Presting)

In November 2008, a contest took place that once would have been possible only in the realm of science fiction. Eighty-four teams from 21 countries met at the iGEM Championship Jamboree, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. Representing the University of Hawai‘i were three CTAHR students—undergraduate Krystle Salazar, master’s student Margaret Ruzicka, and doctoral student and team mentor Norman Wang—and UH-Manoa Microbiology undergraduate Grace Kwan. They traveled to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to present a toolbox of DNA sequences they had created using the techniques of molecular biology, the advice of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering professors Gernot Presting and Loren Gautz and Microbiology professor Sean Callahan, and financial support from CTAHR and UH-Manoa.

iGEM is the world’s premier undergraduate competition in synthetic biology, which is the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and the redesign of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes. At the beginning of summer, student teams receive a kit of biological parts, or BioBricks, which they can combine with parts of their own manufacture and insert into living cells to create life forms with new functions. The newly invented parts are added to the BioBricks registry, expanding the toolkit for future competitors.

In the Presting lab, the students constructed a broad-host-range BioBrick plasmid, a circular DNA that can introduce genes into many different types of bacteria, including cyanobacteria (bluegreen algae) and Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a bacterium that can insert genes into many plants. Because cyanobacteria and plants harness sunlight to make sugars and hydrocarbons, they are promising sources of biofuels. This gives the students’ work real-world utility.

At the iGEM Jamboree, the UH students were named Best Rookie Team and received a bronze medal. But perhaps more important than the BioBricks they produced or the accolades they received was their shared learning experience: setting goals, working independently and as a team, troubleshooting unexpected results, developing contingency plans, meeting deadlines, and persevering to a successful conclusion.