Student science group sets malaria trap

Queen’s Genetically Engineered Machine Team believes Malaria prevention lies in foot odour

QGEM’s strategy stems from common foot odour.
QGEM’s strategy stems from common foot odour.

An undergraduate science initiative is practicing the art of deception.

Set to compete against schools from around the world, Queen’s Genetically Engineered Machine team (QGEM) is targeting malarial mosquitos — a strand of mosquito that identifies its human targets through foot odour.

QGEM plans to create a trap based on bacterial compounds — one that will emit natural human odour to lure infected mosquitos. Their two-pronged solution also involves developing bacteria to remove those odours from human feet.

According to QGEM team manager Henry Barron, the plan hinges on the tendency of mosquitos to naturally develop resistance to all scientific solutions.

“It’s the idea that mosquitos have to find their hosts somewhere, and the way they do that is primarily through odour,” said Barron, ArtSci ’15. “If they were to develop resistance to the compounds [through which they] find us, then they wouldn’t be able to find us anymore, because they would stop smelling them.”

The club, comprised of 10 students across multiple undergraduate faculties, is gearing up for a series of interuniversity summits this fall, working through the summer to complete their project. They’re in the developmental stage of creating their bacteria, with tests to measure its effectiveness still to come.

Traditionally, QGEM would present their summer findings at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (IGEM) Americas East regionals, before progressing to the international competition.

This year, IGEM has amalgamated two regional rounds into a single continental championship in October, pitting Queen’s against rival schools from across North America.

“We’ve historically been one of the top teams in Canada. It’s a point of pride for Queen’s,” Barron said. “It’s going to give us a chance to show our stripes and show that we can compete with some of the big-name Ivy League schools.”

Should they qualify for the IGEM international championship — a feat the club has accomplished each year since their inception in 2009 — Barron and his teammates will travel to Massachusetts Institute of Technology in early November, along with 3,000 undergraduate students from around the world.

IGEM projects are centered in synthetic biology, an emerging field based on the manipulation of natural genes. QGEM mulled over a variety of ideas before settling on foot odour and malarial mosquitos — an issue international in scope, with the potential to eradicate a significant disease.

“Some of the research that’s done, albeit by undergraduates, is making a splash in the scientific world and is the basis for bigger-scale research over a number of years,” Barron said. “We want to try to make synthetic biology an even bigger thing at Queen’s.”

The club relies on the University and several academic departments for funding. They’ve begun seeking corporate sponsorships and are using RocketHub — an offshoot of Kickstarter — in the hopes of accruing public donations.

So far, they’ve raised around $20,000 through grants and sponsorships — $5,000 short of their approximate overall required amount.

“It’s very expensive to run a research team, as we found out very quickly,” Barron said. “We’re not for profit, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still use a lot of money.”

More time, experience and funding would be necessary for any research group to create tangible change, but QGEM members still benefit from the chance to brainstorm solutions to real problems, according to its manager.

They’re not banking on a scientific breakthrough, Barron said, but looking to foster collaboration and innovation at the university level.

“What we’re trying to do this summer is not to cure malaria, but to prove that synthetic biology can be a reasonable or new, innovative solution to an old problem,” he said.

“A lot of the time, that’s what IGEN is. It’s showing that this new field of science can offer an innovative solution.”

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