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School of Arts and Sciences

Tufts iGEM Team Strikes Gold

Monday, December 8, 2014

Student-Led Synthetic Biology Team Celebrates a Year of Achievement.

Tufts iGEM Team
Connor McBrine, A16; Jee Meen Kim, A16; Petar Todorov, A14; President Anthony Monaco; Peter Cavanagh, A16; Brenda French, A15; and Jesse Starger, E16; meet in the Barnum laboratory used by the iGEM team.

By Alexandra Erath, A15

Two years ago when Petar Todorov, A14, visited MIT's Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research as part of his Global Health and Security class, he wasn't looking to start a new club. But when someone suggested the students check out the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition taking place next door, inspiration struck. The iGEM competition is an international contest in synthetic biology among undergraduate teams at universities across the world. Synthetic biology is a specific subfield of biological research that focuses on constructing new or redesigning existing biological parts and systems. Todorov had never seen anything like it.

"I was amazed with the amount of things happening," says Todorov. "A hundred teams of undergrads, all with really exciting projects. Their sheer passion excited me, and I remember thinking, 'We've got to do this at Tufts!'" And thus the Tufts Synthetic Biology team was born.

Along with fellow student Chris Ghadban, E14, Todorov worked diligently to launch a Tufts Synthetic Biology team in early 2013. Assistant Professor Nikhil Nair, of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, serves as a faculty advisor and helps the team plan and execute their ideas, but students ultimately run the group. Todorov was particularly drawn to the autonomy a student-led team offered. "It was a way to have freedom in my research that undergraduates don't experience working for faculty," he explains.

"Tufts Synthetic Biology brings together a group of students who have a passion for scientific inquiry and a diverse set of backgrounds, including biology, chemistry, computer science, and engineering," explains Ghadban. "The interdisciplinary nature of our work allows the team to foster creativity while developing ideas from concepts into actualizations with real-world implications."

The team has accomplished an incredible amount in a very short period of time. Last fall, they offered a course through the Experimental College: A Foray into Synthetic Biology (EXP-0097-DF), featuring guest lecturers who exposed students to the landscape of biological research at Tufts and taught them about both the biological and the administrative aspects of running an independent lab. Current team member Michaela Gold, A17, took the class before joining the team.

Brenda French and Michaela Gold Team members Brenda French, A15, and Michaela Gold, A17 at work in the iGEM laboratory.

"As a freshmen, it can be difficult to get a spot in a research lab," she explains. "I also didn't know much about the potential for doing research over the summer, so I went to the general interest meeting and ended up joining the team."

In June 2014, the Tufts Synthetic Biology team was the only U.S. team awarded one of eight prestigious grant from the Rathneau Institute of the Netherlands. As a result, last month the team was able to host "The Future of Phage and Synthetic Biology," a conference that convened a panel of experts from industry, academia, policy and regulation, and healthcare, to discuss the intersection of bacteriophage therapy and synthetic biology. The team will compile and send conference notes to the Food and Drug Administration to make recommendations on the regulation of phage and virus therapies. They have also collected a large data set on public opinion of such therapies that they hope to publish in the spring semester.

The conference represented a significant component of the team's entry in the 2014 iGEM competition, in which they earned a gold medal. The contest's new "Policy and Practices" track asks students to build interdisciplinary teams of biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, and computer scientists to ask new questions about what synthetic biology can do. "The award reflects our research contributions to the field of synthetic biology, but also to helping the world decide how it might best make use of synthetic biology," says Peter Cavanagh, A16.

For their competition research, the students chose to investigate biofilms. "When bacteria attach to each other and to surfaces using an excreted extracellular matrix in order to survive difficult conditions… bacterial biofilms are formed," explains Todorov. The bacteria in biofilms become almost dormant to increase their hardiness, and are problematic in hospitals as they can populate catheters, wounds, and surfaces and then lead to persistent, hard-to-treat infections, says Todorov. The team's goal was to deploy an aptamer (DNA or RNA that folds into a specific shape and has the ability to bind molecules) that binds c-di-GMP, a messenger molecule that signals bacteria to form a biofilm. In theory, the aptamer would prevent the bacteria from ever entering the biofilm state by blocking the molecular signals.

After running the experiment to measure biofilm growth, the team had a surprise, recalls Todorov. "Biofilm growth had doubled, and we had a completely unexpected, but serendipitous result on hand," he says. This unexpected outcome meant that their findings have potential uses in creating biosensors from bacterial biofilms that stick to surfaces and change colors when they encounter a toxin. "We've made the aptamer part and the instructions for deploying it open-source," says Todorov. "This could be useful to bioengineers who might see an opportunity to build upon our achievements."

The current members were all drawn to the synthetic biology team over joining an existing professor's lab because of the all-encompassing learning approach. "I thought this would be a different experience from working with a professor because it would be a way to learn about research from all perspectives, such as getting funding, finding lab space, writing proposals, and conducting experiments," says co-director Michael Zalesne, A16. Fellow co-director Peter Cavanagh says he couldn't agree more. "That we can design our own research projects is the biggest thing that sets us apart," he says. "For underclassmen, it's a really good way to first get into research. A lot of what we're doing is helping them learn how to come up with their own ideas."

President Monaco meets with Tufts iGem Team President Monaco invited iGEM team members to meet with scientist J. Craig Venter, who delivered the President's Lecture at Tufts in March, 2014. Pictured (left to right): Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Nikhil Nair; Rohit Muralidhar, A14; J. Craig Venter; President Monaco; Christopher Ghadban, E14; Petar Todorov, A14; and Michael Zalesne, A16.

After such a successful first year, the Tufts Synthetic Biology team is now coordinating a weekly lecture series, but much of their focus is on drafting proposals and potential research topics for next summer's competition project. They are also working with local high schools to teach students about synthetic biology.

Todorov, who after graduating last May has stayed on as an advisor, believes the team fills a research niche at Tufts, and he couldn't be more pleased with the team's successes so far. "The overall goal is to get students thinking about their own ideas and to see what it takes to bring it from a fleeting thought into a project," he says. "It's to stimulate undergrads, who absolutely have the capacity to do this sort of research, to come up with something new and experience the passion of pursuing it."