November 11, 2009 — A team of six science wizards from the University of Virginia traveled to Cambridge, Mass., over Halloween weekend to compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. Their assignment: build a means of providing clean water for the world. Their goal: be the first U.Va. team to win a gold medal.
Their results: gold – a distinction earned by only 47 of 111 teams entered. Nineteen others won silver, and 24 took bronze.
The six undergraduate students – fourth-year biomedical engineering majors Joe Bozzay, Maria Fini and Brandon Freshcorn; third-year biomedical engineering major Rohini Manaktala; and fourth-year biology majors Dan Tarjan and Thaddeus Webb – began collaborating during the spring semester and recently completed the final design of their project, which involves the manipulation of bacteria to absorb arsenic.
"In our case, we are making a relatively simple modification to E. coli by introducing a new set of genes that will help it sequester arsenic," said Tarjan, the team leader. "To do this, we use standard molecular biology techniques to insert our genes onto a specific plasmid – a circular piece of DNA – which we can then 'transform' into the bacterial cells."
In layman's terms, the Registry of Standard Biological Parts provided the group with a set of core parts called BioBricks to use in the construction of their project. With these tiny genetic components, the team engineered a new machine for absorbing arsenic commonly found worldwide in groundwater.
The experiment involved cooling and reheating vials of E. coli until the cells split open just enough to allow the scientists to inject DNA slices, which they received from the registry. The students dubbed their newly engineered bacteria an "arsenic sponge."
The "sponges" have potential real-world benefits. Overexposure to arsenic in groundwater can lead to skin or lung cancer, Tarjan said. "We hope that our project is a step toward giving these people access to clean drinking water," he added.
More than 110 teams participated in this year's edition of the competition, which began as a monthlong course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003. Over the past six years, the competition has evolved into an external, undergraduate event.
The U.Va. team presented its project to a panel of judges Sunday morning in the Stata Center at MIT and left the competition having placed in the gold medal category, a strata reserved for teams who were able to "demonstrate a functional product and provide characterization that can be used by others in the future," Webb said. "We managed to do some direct measurements on the arsenic we were trying to sequester and it looks like our bacteria did their job."
Bozzay noted that, "It was evident that the European and Asian teams especially had obtained a lot of funding and worked very hard on their projects, so you definitely sensed a competitive atmosphere."
However, the teams remained cordial toward one another, bonding over impending homework and Halloween events.
The U.Va. team received support from several University organizations, including the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Medicine. Support also came from Linwood A. 'Chip' Lacy Jr., a graduate of the Engineering School and Darden School of Business and strong supporter of student experiential programs at the Engineering School and throughout the University.
The U.Va. team also benefited from constructive criticism from other teams. A team from Virginia Commonwealth University visited the University Oct. 18, allowing both to make practice presentations in front of an audience.
"The competition allows people to pursue really innovative research projects which may not have happened in a traditional research setting," Tarjan said. "It allows undergrads to jump right into a cutting-edge field."
Webb also lauded the experience. "I was doing completely self-directed work," he said. "The opportunity to design and troubleshoot my own experiments taught me more about research than any course could teach."