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USC iGEM: A Scintillating Success Story of Biological Synthetics

Courtesy of iGEM

by Aline Hesse

Begun last year in the spring of 2011 through the persistent efforts of Nolan Sardesai, a recent
graduate of USC Viterbi School of Engineering, USC’s International Genetically Engineered
Machine (iGEM) team has already experienced budding success.

Throughout this past summer and into the fall, the USC team, headed by former Team Captain
Percy Genyk, worked to develop strains of E. coli that would use their cellular defense
mechanisms to deactivate helpful foreign DNA, effectively removing those genes that confer
antibiotic resistance from the E. coli strains themselves. This project was intended to reverse
the increasingly concerning pattern of drug-resistance, essentially counteracting bacterial ability
to gain antibiotic resistance by destroying favorable genetic material entering the cell from the
environment. And it seems to have worked.

“And we noticed by hour four, there was a decrease in bacterial growth [in the antibiotic
medium], so in the wee hours of the night, it was confirmed that our project was working and we
were just celebrating,” Genyk, now a student advisor for iGEM, said. “It was so joyful because
when you put in a whole summer of work, to have your project work…it was an amazing
accomplishment.”

After hatching a project idea and then developing it, each iGEM team travels to the annual
symposium held by the iGEM Foundation. This non-profit organization is dedicated to the
advancement of synthetic biology, which involves the use of science and engineering to create
biological functions and systems not present in nature. For example, a team may present bacteria
that can change colors in the presence of varying arsenic concentrations or bacteria engineered
to serve as red blood cell substitutes. At the conference, iGEM teams from multiple international
universities present their work in this emerging field, not only to be judged, but also to be shared
for the benefit of all.

Yet even after the symposium, USC’s iGEM team is still not done. Although the 2011
competition concluded at the end of last year, the team continues to work on perfecting their
results and anticipates sending in a preliminary manuscript to a scientific journal sometime this
April.

Said Genyk: “By April, we’ll submit a manuscript and begin the journal process. So hopefully
we can finally have a publication where people can see all we did.”

With this in mind, the team is focusing on their next project: reviewing applications to determine
the USC iGEM team of 2012. To apply, applicants must submit a paper application, and if
invited, undergo two interview sessions. Although the number of applicants has tripled this year,
Genyk would like to keep the team close-knit.

“The reason I like to keep it small is we work together so much and I think we can grow more
as a small group of students tackling a big project,” he said. “When you have seven people who
struggle together, think critically together and succeed together…you can accomplish much
more.”

While Genyk expects to expand the iGEM team by a few members, the qualities of those few
members are vital to the success of the team and not all about experience and know-how.

“People think that you have to have experience in the lab, and a 3.9 to be an auto-in, but what
we look for is the people who are imaginative because that’s really what iGEM is all about,”
he said. “You have to have the heart to do it, because come the fall of competition year, it gets
brutal, the deadline is coming up, the project is almost done but not quite, and you have to make
it work. You have to pour a lot into it.”

USC iGEM presents an opportunity to put academic knowledge to the test while learning and
growing with others to produce an original creation. These projects are then shared with the
scientific community, allowing students involved in iGEM to help further the field of synthetic
biology while still undergraduates.

When asked what prospective applicants to iGEM should know, Genyk said, “If they get in, it
will change their lives in terms of how they think about science. You thought you loved science
until you get to iGEM—then you know you’re crazy for it after.”

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