Queen’s students win gold medal for research in synthetic biology

Queen’s Genetically Engineered Machine (QGEM) Team takes first place in Boston for project focused on arctic oil spill cleanup

From left to right: Sarah Babbitt, Nolan Neville, Mady Thompson and Yifei Wang.
Supplied by Nolan Neville

The Queen’s Genetically Engineered Machine (QGEM)Team won a gold medal on Nov. 9 for their summer research project focused on developing synthetic biology to tackle arctic oil spills. 

Formed in 2010, the Queen’s Genetically Engineered Machine Team is made up of undergraduate researchers on campus and is one of six in the province that make up the Ontario Genetic Engineered Machine (oGEM) collective. 

With other teams in Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton and Waterloo, the oGEM’s goal is to stimulate interest in synthetic biology at the university level. 

Each year, the collective travels south of the border to compete at the International Genetic Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition, hosted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). According to their website, iGEM is the premiere student team competition in synthetic biology and has encouraged students to solve real-world challenges by building genetically engineered biological systems for over 10 years.

This year, iGEM drew nearly 5,400 participants from 310 teams, representing 44 countries. Participants were provided with a kit of biological parts to work on over the summer, then their final projects are presented to and judged by a panel of industry experts.

Through genetic engineering, QGEM created bacteria that can break down harmful pollutants in water like oil. Over the summer, the team focused on engineering E. coli biofilms for useful applications. One member of the QGEM team, Nolan Neville, ArtSci ’18, told The Journal “biofilms are a hot-topic in research these days but usually for the opposite reasons.”

“[Biofilms] are often maligned because they are considered one of the key factors in anti-biotic resistant infections, as well as things like dental plaque. Biofilms have a bad rap, but they are also pretty useful when you can engineer them to do useful things, which is exactly what we did,” Neville said.

QGEM was one of only four Canadian teams to receive a medal for their research. After out-performing schools like MIT, Harvard, Stanford and Waterloo, Neville said their results show Queen’s can “definitely hold [its] own on the international stage.”

For team member Sarah Babbit, CompSci ’19, a significant contribution to Queen’s success this year was its multi-disciplinary membership. “It has to be multi-disciplinary to get everything done, you need someone to come up with the idea, someone to do it in the lab, someone to model it, someone to write about it,” she said. 

According to QGEM team member Yifei Wang, ArtSci ’18, the project itself “offers a lot of promise,” indicating that their research could be used by future iGEM teams to “carry forward what [QGEM] did.”

Wang said their research is aligned with popular trends in the bio-tech industry right now.

“The goal of iGEM is to essentially promote synthetic biology research because it is an up-and-coming field, especially in the bio-tech industry,” he said. “They promote this through the use of the essential genetic parts called bio-bricks. They are creating a whole database of these little bio-bricks for researchers and other iGEM teams.”

Wang said there’s a lot of additional research and work to be done in this field.

“I know that the iGEM team at Harvard was working on a project similar to ours,” he said. “I would highly encourage future iGEM teams that focus on our area.” 

“It was amazing to present our own project [and] to offer our innovative, creative idea and put that out in the world,” Wang said. 

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