Bright young things: UVA’s self-directed synthetic biology stars

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Members of UVA’s iGEM team, a student group that tackles complex synthetic biology challenges in an annual international competition, are in the process of selecting a project that they’ll work to develop for the next six months. Photo: Elli Williams Members of UVA’s iGEM team, a student group that tackles complex synthetic biology challenges in an annual international competition, are in the process of selecting a project that they’ll work to develop for the next six months. Photo: Elli Williams

Ask some of the newest members of UVA’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition team why they plan to spend the summer in a lab on Grounds splicing DNA, and they have a tendency to talk over one another in their eagerness to explain.

“It’s undergraduate research, but we’re not treated like undergraduates,” said 19-year-old Josh Leehan, a second-year biology student.

“That’s one of the appeals for a lot of people,” said Elizabeth Kelly, 20, another second-year bio major. Plenty of undergrads at UVA get the chance to work in labs, she said. “But you’re not doing anything on your own. You’re doing someone else’s work.”

Not so with iGEM, a decade-old contest that challenges college students from different disciplines and from all over the world to solve real problems with synthetic biology—almost entirely on their own. UVA bio professor Keith Kozminski, one of several faculty members who mentor the group, describes the year-long program University undergrads have built around the competition in more sweeping terms.

“This is what college education should look like in the future,” he said. “Students tackling deep problems, deep questions—questions that are global and really drawing on many disciplines simultaneously.”

Synthetic biology concerns itself with building new biological systems and editing and tweaking existing ones in order to put them to use. It is, in essence, the marriage of engineering and life science, and in the last decade, the field has exploded. From bacteria-laced computer chips that can sniff out pollutants to manufactured microbes that assassinate tumor cells, the applications are myriad, and carry the potential for great human impact—and great profit.

The iGEM competition started as a synthetic bio course at MIT 10 years ago, and has grown into an international contest that last year drew nearly 200 undergraduate teams to five regional competitions and a world championship in Cambridge.

UVA’s teams have performed well regionally in the past, but in 2012, a group of seven undergrads took over a bench in a UVA biomedical engineering lab for the summer to figure out how to create a virus that could invade pertussis bacterium, forcing it to produce a human pregnancy hormone marker. Cough in a tube full of viruses, let it brew, add a home pregnancy test, and you would have a cheap, quick, easy test for whooping cough, a disease that currently takes a week and a lot of fuss to diagnose—and kills hundreds of thousands of children every year.

They took fourth out of 44 teams at last year’s East Regional iGEM competition, beating out MIT and many other innovation and biotech powerhouses, got a special nod for “Best Experimental Measurement Approach,” and were among 14 teams to go to the international championship in Cambridge. They didn’t place there, but when they got back to Charlottesville, they hit the ground running, and their diagnostic test took first place—and $20,000—at UVA’s annual Entrepreneurship Cup last November.

And then they got to work again.

If the Virginia iGEM team members’ competitive ingenuity is what got them attention on the road last year, it’s their work in the classroom that keeps them strong. The team dedicates the spring semester to recruitment, fundraising, a crash course in synthetic biology for new members, and the development of the project they’ll tackle over the summer and bring to the 2013 competition. It’s a long, hard slog—a full-credit course—and every part of the process is run by the team.

From lectures on a carefully selected syllabus of research articles led by senior members to the democratic selection of their project, “everything is student-driven,” said fifth-year biochemistry and physics double major Shaun Moshasha, who joined the team in 2012. Their ability to bring together multiple scientific fields, teach each other, and represent UVA’s strengths as a pioneer in the sciences is helping them make the case to deans and administrators for more funding, which will let them grow the team to a total of 13 members this year and fund a spinoff group focused on innovation.

The accolades and interest are exciting, but it’s clear what matters most to the team is the science, and the chance to put their fingerprints on something that could change lives.

“It’s exciting, because you get to see your ideas come to fruition,” Moshasha said. “I learned about these things in a textbook, and I finally get to implement them.”

“This is what college education should look like in the future,” said UVA biology professor Keith Kozminski. “Students tackling deep problems, deep questions—questions that are global and really drawing on many disciplines simultaneously.”

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