Chris Thompson and Peter Mercado-ReyesChris Thompson (left) and Peter Mercado-Reyes are among Purdue iGEM team members who worked on this year's project—creating a microbe to help plants' ability to uptake nutrients from the soil. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Bio Building Blocks

Students Create "Genetic Machines" in Global Effort to Solve Problems

By Olivia Maddox - Published December 10, 2014

When Jenna Rickus interviewed for a position on Purdue's agricultural and biological engineering faculty in 2002, she was mulling over ideas for some type of student competition—a sort of Rube Goldberg Machine Contest for biological engineers.

iGEM Logo 

About the same time, the foundation for a competition such as Rickus envisioned was being laid at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where students in an independent activities course designed biological systems to link cells. The class morphed into a summer matchup among five teams in 2004 and became known as the International Genetic Engineering Machine competition, or iGEM for short.

"I learned about iGEM at a science meeting, and my reaction was, 'Let's do it!'" Rickus wasted no time setting it in motion at Purdue. She posted a callout for students interested in a new biological and genetic engineering club. Only two showed up—but they were intrigued enough to recruit some friends. Rickus approached Kari Clase, coordinator of the College of Technology 's biotechnology program, to serve as co-advisor, and Purdue fielded its first team in 2006 with seven students. Since then more than 80 students have participated, many landing prestigious fellowships for graduate school.

Think Legos

In the competition, or jamboree, teams receive a kit of standardized biological parts—called BioBricks—that they supplement with other parts of their own design. They assemble the parts into genetic machines that operate in living cells, using engineering design principles to solve a problem.

Clase likens this process to kids playing with Lego bricks. "They have a basic starter kit, then they add to it based on their interests or share pieces with their friends," she says. "DNA parts are like Legos; you use them to build a device."

Parts from different Lego sets are interchangeable. After something is built, the bricks can be disassembled and used to make other objects. The same is true for synthetic biology or genetic engineering. "You have to be able to share the parts, so they must work for everyone," Rickus says. "Without these standards, the science wouldn't work. DNA BioBricks have to be able to talk to each other."

And, just like Legos, the ability to reuse the parts to build something else moves the science forward. All knowledge and physical creations become part of the iGEM bank to broaden the science, Rickus explains. "Teams have to create a Wiki page that is open to the public so they don't hoard information," she says. The technology is globally owned, with students as key contributors.

An emphasis on human practices requires students to also look at how ethics and the science affect society. They must also follow strict guidelines, and projects are under tight regulatory control.

Playing to Purdue Strengths

Chris Thompson
Chris Thompson. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

When the Boilermakers hopped on board, around 50 schools were competing in the jamboree. In 2014, more than 250 teams from around the world participated at either the regional or international level.

Purdue junior Chris Thompson was an iGEM veteran by the time he arrived on campus. His Greenfield Central (Indiana) High School team won the inaugural high school division in 2010. As president of the executive board, he's driven the Purdue team's activities since January. Members log hundreds of hours of work over an 11-month schedule. Funded by the club, several team members work through the summer, when lab work begins in earnest. Others stay and work gratis, just for the experience.

This year, the team tackled the problem of global malnutrition. Like this one, most projects are ag-related. "We try to play to Purdue strengths," says Thompson, a biological engineering major.

The students engineered a microbe, Bacillus subtillus, with natural genes from corn to increase plants' ability to uptake nutrients from the soil. The project—dubbed Minecrobe—combines the power of microbes in soil with a "virtual Legos" Minecraft video game twist. The microbe released phytosiderophores, amino acids excreted by the roots of some crops, to shuttle iron from the soil into plant roots.

"Essentially we're optimizing bacteria that naturally live around plants to help them take in more nutrients from the soil," Thompson says. "When this happens, plants' nutritional value increases, ultimately leading to more nourished plants in the global food chain."

Peter Mercado-Reyes
Peter Mercado-Reyes. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

To date, the students have only conducted their work in well-contained, lab conditions, Rickus says. To learn and consider how this type of future technology could impact people and the environment if implemented in fields, students spoke with key constituents, experts and regulatory agencies, including ag industry leaders, farmers, consumers and the Environmental Protection Agency. Students then had to justify their technical approach when presenting at the jamboree. Through this process, iGEM strives to instill a new type of innovation model for the next generation of biological engineers in which safety, ethics, environmental protection and public discourse are integrated into the design process up front.

Team members are Mark Aronson, Betsy Benner, Sriram Boppana, Jacob Carmen, Michael Drakopolis, Hailey Edmondson, Ethan Epple, Charlotte Hoo, Deborah Lee, Arren Liu, Casey Martin, Nidhi Menon, Peter Mercado-Reyes, Joe Muskat, Zach Oberhaus, Joshua Saliutama, Tony Tan, Chris Thompson, Swetha Vinjimoor, Ryan Wagner and James Welch.

Honing in on Careers

Charlotte Hoo
Charlotte Hoo. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

"Participating in iGEM gives you the opportunity to do research in an up-and-coming field," says Charlotte Hoo, a junior in biomedical engineering. "I want to make a difference and leave a legacy. It's a chance to do something great and lasting. We're at the forefront of all these young minds coming together to do something big," she says.

And students are also doing something big for themselves. The experience can reinforce a current career choice or lead a student in a different direction. "It helps you realize what you want to do or don't want to do," says Thompson, who discovered a passion for entrepreneurship and hopes to start a company after graduation. For Hoo, the experience opened new avenues in computer science, such as standardized databases for medical software.

Former teammates and Purdue alumni Sean Kearney '13 and Max Showalter '14 say the projects reinforced their commitment to research. Kearney is enrolled in a Ph.D. program in biological engineering at MIT. Showalter is pursuing dual Ph.Ds. in biological oceanography and astrobiology at the University of Washington.

Kearney, a Carmel, Indiana, native, selected Purdue for engineering. "I was trying to determine which engineering field was the right fit for me when I discovered that Dr. Rickus was offering a course called Synthetic Life. "I contacted her, and we talked about engineered biology and the consequences of that," he says. "I fell in love with the idea of learning how biology works by engineering machines."

What separates iGEM from other undergraduate research experiences, Kearney says, is that experiments are designed completely by students. "It's a huge intellectual contribution as opposed to working on someone else's prescribed project," he says. "It all comes from you. You have to be willing to mess up and to try things you likely have never thought about. You have to be willing to fall into the deep end and try to climb back out."

A recipient of a National Science Foundation fellowship for graduate school, Kearney was drawn to MIT, which he describes as the "hub" for synthetic biology. He says iGEM made the transition to graduate school easier. "It helped me learn the skills I didn't have," he says. "I wanted to focus on mathematical modeling. By the time I graduated I had learned what it took to do. As a result, my first-year graduate courses were easy. I had the experience to design experiments."

Showalter was in a situation similar to Kearney's. The St. Louis, Missouri, native also picked Purdue for its strong engineering program, thinking he would major in aeronautical engineering, but finding it wasn't the right fit. He was casting around when Kearney—a year ahead of him—gave an iGEM presentation in one of his classes. Showalter was hooked. He changed his major to biological engineering and joined the team.

Showalter says embarking on a student-driven project can be a daunting task, but the same circumstance makes it exciting. "iGEM projects take a lot of planning—not everything is as glamourous as the lab work. But it's worth it; you learn so much. It's a big commitment, but a big payoff, too."