iGEM team headed to international competition

Oct 05, 2016      By Victoria Grdina

The Nebraska iGEM Team
The Nebraska iGEM Team

Nebraska is known for its agriculture, and soon the University of Nebraska-Lincoln may be known for its contribution to improving farming processes across the world.

A group of Nebraska students and faculty members have spent the past year working on an interdisciplinary research project that they’ll present at The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Jamboree competition in Boston Oct. 27-31. This will be the first iGEM team from the university—and Nebraska—to participate in the event.

The iGEM team’s project aims to reduce the high nitrate levels in Nebraska waterways caused by fertilizers. The excessive nitrates eventually accumulate and create hypoxic dead zones where few forms of wildlife can survive—like in the Gulf of Mexico, the destination point of many of Nebraska’s rivers and streams.

The National Academy of Engineering listed management of the nitrogen cycle as one of its 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century. This makes the project an ambitious one for the iGEM team, but chemical engineering junior Brynne Schwabauer said the tie to Nebraska waterways and farming also made it the perfect choice.

“We wanted something that was focused on Nebraska and our agriculture, but also could make an impact on a wider level,” said Brynne Schwabauer. “And we wanted something we could feasibly do in a summer.”

Computer Science and Engineering Professor Massimiliano Pierobon brought the idea of iGEM to the university after participating in the program at Georgia Tech. Thanks to funding and support from UCARE, the National Science Foundation, and the Departments of Chemistry, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Computer Science and Engineering, the project was able to kick off in January. Pierobon and fellow faculty mentors Myra Cohen, Jiantao Guo and Wei Niu selected six students that were not just top applicants, but the best fits for the interdisciplinary project. In addition to Schwabauer, the selected student team members include computer science and mathematics sophomore Colton Harper, chemistry and microbiology junior Danny Dooling, chemical engineering senior Josh Mueller, chemistry sophomore Madison Bierman, and computer engineering junior Phuong Ninh. 

Since then, the iGEM team has been holding biweekly planning meetings and gaining sponsorships from Nature Technology Corporation, LI-COR and Monsanto. This summer, the team members focused on the project full time, spending about 40 hours a week conducting wet lab experiments and tests.

“This is a fantastic team. They’ve really done more than the sum of their parts,” said Cohen, Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering. “They have gone out there, and come up with a project and ideas, and they’ve been driving it all. They’re a great group of students.”

The team’s ultimate solution was to genetically engineer a very tightly controlled strain of E. coli that would aid in converting excess nitrate ions back into atmospheric nitrogen, thus completing the cycle and reducing accumulation and pollution. The team is also using computer technology to develop assurance cases and abstract models that will help them better predict outcomes for effectiveness and safety during experimentation.

“We don’t want to go from converting a nitrate problem to an E. coli problem, so we have to ensure the safety of our system as well,” said Harper, who has been working primarily with the assurance cases. “I’m excited to be a part of that because I think in the future, this could be common practice in the iGEM competition and maybe in biology in general.”

Cohen agrees that results of this project could extend far beyond this month’s competition and benefit both involved students and fellow scientists. 

“This is a cutting edge solution to something that other people may not have been able to solve,” Cohen said. “It’s a first step, and if it goes well, we’ll publish some of it, and then other researchers will build on it.”

Cohen also said that another iGEM team will form next year. She hopes that it will expand into other departments and eventually become an official club at Nebraska with several teams and projects.

“A lot of the stuff that these students work on, if they’re good projects, they may lead to real research, to publications. So there are opportunities to actually take what we do and write research papers,” Cohen said. “It’s a really good experience. It’s not just about the competition.”

Not only is the project about more than the competition for the students, but it’s a chance for everyone involved to work on something personally meaningful on many levels. 

“Given Nebraska’s agricultural foundation, doing something that we directly contribute to and helping trying to fix that, is kind of our civic duty,” Harper said. “I definitely think in the grand scheme of things that we’re working on a worthy cause.” 

More details at: http://igem.unl.edu