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Spring 2009 - Team looking at bacteria

Destination Purdue > Spring 2009 - Team looking at bacteria

Team looking at bacteria in a new light

By Katherine Kuykendall

When most people think of bacteria, they think of disease, sickness or contamination. But when Jessamine Osborne, Janie Stine and other members of the Purdue iGEM team think of bacteria, they think of innovation.

Bacteria plate

Illustration by Angela Hoffman

Members of the iGEM team, Janie Stine (left) and Jessamine Osborne, work with bacteria to create a patch that indicates when a person should apply more sunscreen.

The iGEM team, a student organization, is working to make useful products from bacteria, such as printer ink, tattoos and sunscreen. This year, the team is developing a patch that can change color in the sun. Imagine wearing a small patch on your arm. When it turns blue, you will know it's time to apply more sunscreen to protect you from harmful UV rays - that could be quite handy.

"Skin cancer is a major problem in the United States," said Stine, a junior in biological engineering from Indianapolis. "This way, you don't have to guess when you have to put on more sunscreen."

Although they're focused on sunscreen patches now, Osborne and Stine are interested in discovering other things bacteria can do. They said iGEM is a unique organization that offers them opportunities not always available for undergraduates.

"Getting to be a mad scientist for a while is fun," said Osborne, a senior genetics and cell molecular development major from Evansville, Ind. "At this point, you're only limited by your imagination and budget."

Bacterial warfare
By Katherine Kuykendall

In 2007, the Purdue iGEM team project engaged in bacterial warfare. "Basically, it was like rock, paper, scissors," said Janie Stine, a junior in biological engineering from Indianapolis.

The team wanted to develop three bacteria populations to see which could defeat the others first. The goal was to help them study population genetics and create an independent environment. But there was a problem.

"We had one that kept killing everything," explains Craig Barcus, a senior agricultural and biological engineering major from Plainfield, Ind. Eventually, they fouhd a way to have dueling bacteria using two bacberial propulations, instead of three. Maybe next year, they'll go for bacterial hangman.

Find out more

Purdue Agriculture GOinAG
Purdue Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Purdue iGEM Wikipedia page

Craig Barcus, iGEM president and a senior in biological engineering from Plainfield, Ind., explains that there are still many difficulties to overcome in making the sunscreen patch. For instance, the bacteria in the patch must change color quickly once it has been exposed for a certain time. If the color change takes too long, it won't help you. But the potential for this product is great. "If it works, it would definitely be marketable," said Barcus.

iGEM members focus on synthetic biology. That means they watch an organism to see what it naturally does, and then find an application where that natural function can perform an important task.

The Purdue iGEM team, made up of four undergraduate students, one graduate student and two advisory professors, ultimately want to compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (hence the iGEM name) in Boston. There are 85 teams from around the world in the competition, and Osborne sees the competition as an opportunity for Purdue to gain exposure with other scholars. "We're helping to get Purdue on the international map," said Osborne.

After the competition, the iGEM team hopes to continue the development of the sunscreen patch, hoping that one day it could be marketable. They will also work to develop other things with synthetic biology, because the possibilities for this type of science are endless, Stine explained. "If an organism can do it, we can make it too," said Stine.