Macquarie students to compete in international science competition


For the first time, a team of young student-scientists from Macquarie University will be making their way to the US next month to compete in the world’s premiere undergraduate competition in synthetic biology known as the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition or iGEM.

Synthetic biology is an emerging cross-disciplinary field which brings together Biology and Engineering. The hotly-contested iGEM competition, run by the Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology (MIT), attracts current and future leaders in the field of synthetic biology. This year, the Macquarie team will be up against 130 teams – around 2000 participants – from some of the top universities around the world including the UK’s Cambridge, University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, IIT Bombay, ETH, Seoul and Peking.

As part of the competition, teams are given a kit of biological parts. From these parts and new parts of their own design, they build biological systems and operate them in living cells. Projects in past competitions have ranged from a rainbow of pigmented bacteria to banana and wintergreen smelling bacteria, an arsenic biosensor, bactoblood and buoyant bacteria.

The Macquarie team is made up of undergraduate students,Yagiz Alp Aksoy, Hilal Varinli, Joanna Hare and Olga Ibrahim, who’ll be presenting the team’s results at the iGEM Championship Jamboree in the US in November and also Katherine Mackenzie and Sangeev Santhirasegaram.

The instructors are staff of the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences, Drs Louise Brown and Robert Willows. The team will be accompanied by postdoctoral fellow Dr Karl Hassan. They are being sponsored by the University and the Biomolecular Frontiers Research Centre.

The main objective of their project is to engineer a novel reversible molecular ‘light switch’ by introducing a bacteriophytochrome gene from the bacteria Deinococcus radiodurans and Agrobacterium tumefaciens into E. coli. The innovative approach will result in the colour of the E. coli ‘switching’ from blue to green. This particular light switching mechanism has not been obtained in an E. coli colony before.

A significant outcome of the research project is that not only can it be applied to the iGEM competition providing international exposure for the research, but it is also built into the new Macquarie undergraduate capstone units that are designed to introduce students to ‘real world’ research.

The iGEM competition began in 2003 with a month-long course at MIT where students designed biological systems to make cells blink. The course grew into a summer competition with 5 teams in 2004 and grew to 112 teams by 2009. By participating in the iGEM competition, Macquarie students are becoming part of this evolving new discipline and have the opportunity to demonstrate their skills in cutting edge research in the field.