Virginia Team Wins Bronze Medal in Genetically Engineered Machines Competition

December 13, 2010 — The Virginia United Genetically Engineered Machine team, including members from the University of Virginia's Engineering School and College of Arts & Sciences, won a bronze medal from the prestigious International Genetically Engineered Machines competition, held last month at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The U.Va. team, known as VGEM, was founded four years ago by a 2008 Engineering School graduate, George McArthur, to provide a synthetic biology education and research experience for U.Va. undergraduates. Since then, the team has developed into a program that includes an annual spring seminar course, summer research internships and independent study in the fall – all organized by students.

James Aylor, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said, "The VGEM team pioneers undergraduate-driven research in a cutting-edge engineering discipline and remains a model of student self-governance and leadership."

This year, the U.Va. team collaborated with students from Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia State University and Bluefield State College to form a multi-institutional team, Virginia United.

The iGEM competition at MIT is an undergraduate synthetic biology conference with more than 180 participating teams from all over the world. These teams try to engineer novel biological systems from standard, interchangeable genetic components, which may found in nature or deposited in the Registry of Standard Biological Parts.

Virginia United presented its work on constructing an environmental biosensor for detecting multiple fish toxins, including mercury, copper and arsenic. The genetically encoded sensor functions inside of bacteria programmed to express fluorescent protein in response to detecting even minute amounts of toxins.

James Galloway, associate dean for sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences, said the collaboration is a step toward putting the Commonwealth of Virginia on the map in this field, next to other universities such as Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology.

"The institutional partnership will breed collaborative effort and teamwork of high quality otherwise unlikely to be generated by a single institution," he said.

Thomas C. Skalak, U.Va. vice president for research, said, "It's programs like these that make universities stand out. With continued support, these students will do big things."

The 2010 VGEM team members from U.Va. are Rohini Manaktala (biomedical engineering), Austin Chamberlin (environmental science), Megan Barron (biology), Arjun Arthreya (psychology and chemistry) and Yong Wu (chemical engineering).

Faculty advisers include Erik Fernandez, professor of chemical engineering; Inchan Kwon, assistant professor of chemical engineering; Jason Papin, assistant professor of biomedical engineering; Jay Hirsh, professor of biology; Keith Kozminski, associate professor of biology, and Kay Christopher, biology staff member.

The team is supported by U.Va.'s Office of the Vice President of Research, School of Medicine, School of Engineering and Applied Science and the College of Arts & Sciences, as well as with  private support from Linwood A. "Chip" Lacy Jr., who graduated from the Engineering School in 1967 and from the Darden School of Business in 1969.

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