UW undergraduates engineer new antibiotics, win first prize in international competition


With its creation of an anthrax-destroying protein and the engineering of microbe-targeting E. coli bacteria, a team of UW undergraduate students took home a first-place prize for an international genetic-engineering competition this month.

The team, comprised of 14 students who are mostly in biology or biology-related majors, placed first in the Health and Medicine division of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition for its design of non-traditional antibiotics. The annual competition challenges students from all over the world to advance the field of synthetic biology by designing and building systems in living cells.

“They were tasked with coming up with a cool idea for what you could do with engineered life forms, and then actually building some aspect of that,” said Eric Klavins, team faculty adviser and electrical engineering assistant professor.

The team of undergraduates, led by doctorate students and faculty advisers, chose to engineer microbes with the intent of developing a new kind of antibiotic. One group designed and built a protein intended to destroy anthrax, and another group re-engineered E. coli to specifically target and exterminate harmful microbes without harming healthy cells.

The U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases is currently testing the protein on real samples of anthrax to see if it will be fit for use in the field.

“Twentieth-century antibiotics like penicillin have been very powerful, but they’re starting to have problems as resistance gets really common,” said senior Chris Eiben, a biology major on the project. “We’re starting to have to use harsher antibiotics that are more detrimental to people. We wanted to start bringing proteins and microbes into the fold and see how that worked.“

The majority of the work was done by undergraduates on a small budget and tight time constraints over the summer. After months of 10-hour days using protein-design software and cutting-edge genetic transplantation techniques, the team submitted its results to iGEM and on Nov. 6 headed off to the iGEM Jamboree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The team presented its findings before a panel of industry-expert judges and an audience of several hundred people. Competing against 139 teams from all over the world, the UW team received a gold medal in the Health and Medicine category. UW and MIT were the only U.S. schools to win category-specific awards.

“I think the reason we did so well this year was not only that the students did such an amazing job, but that we were actually able to get something done,” said Justin Siegel, one of the graduate student advisers. “It’s very rare to take a concept that has never been done … and in just a couple of months get it to work well enough that we can have real results we can present and publish.”

As part of its research, the team kept a record of the pieces of genetic code it developed and submitted it to an international registry dedicated to expediting biological research by standardizing and sharing biological information with other researchers. A subgroup of the team also developed software tools to make protein design easier for future iGEM teams.

“A main point of the competition is to contribute things that will … make it easier for future teams to work on new tools and techniques, and the competition rewards you for that,” said Michal Galdzicki, a graduate student adviser.

To the students, iGEM was not only a chance to compete, but also a hands-on opportunity that is not typically available in the classroom setting.

“You can’t learn anything in a class nearly as extensive as you can learn in an iGEM summer,” Eiben said. “All the teams this year were working on real-world problems that are affecting people adversely. We actually get to do something that’s meaningful instead of just going through the motions.”

Students who are interested in working on next year’s iGEM project are encouraged to contact adviser Justin Siegel or Ingrid Swanson. They emphasize that interested students need not come from a science background; many participants have no lab experience when they begin. Arts and humanities majors in particular are encouraged to apply.