Six teams of Alberta students will be making their way to Boston at the end of the month to compete in an international synthetic biology competition.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition gets underway on October 27 and students are challenged to build and program living organisms from standard, interchangeable parts, called BioBricks, to do a variety of biological functions.

The six teams are from Lethbridge, Canmore, Calgary and Edmonton and they recently went head-to-head at a mock competition in Calgary to prepare for the international event.

“It is actually more work than I thought so the project started in fall and we had to work full-time during the summer and the spring and we just wrapped the project right now, which is a year after we started it,” said David Nguyen, chemical engineering student.

“This project has given me a real good experience to learn what it’s like to be on an inter-disciplinary team so you have engineers and biologists and sciences all working together to develop a solution and how you can communicate between all these different departments,” said Tiffany Dang, engineering team lead.

“Getting to work in a setting where you can actually talk with people from other faculties and backgrounds is a great opportunity to understand how other faculties and students think but it also offers various viewpoints and ways to collaborate on the same idea,” said Rachelle Varga, biology student.

The teams are supported by the geekStarter program, which is operated my MindFuel, and officials say the projects give students a chance to work on something that has a real-world outcome.

“To work with students to identify real-world projects that have solutions, using synthetic biology and so this year, our geekStarter teams, there are six of them; three high school and three collegiate, and they attack a real-world problem so we support them with funding, we support them with mentors, bringing in international individuals who have extensive knowledge in the area of genomics and then we support them on their journey to getting to Boston,” said Cassy Weber, CEO of MindFuel.

Projects for iGEM include:

  • A blood-clotting device based on snake venom from the Lethbridge high school team
  • A bacteria to be used on Mars to detoxify and remediate Martian soil while simultaneously producing oxygen gas from the Urban Tundra team
  • A DNA-based nano-scale solar cell designed to facilitate photosynthesis from the Team IngenuityLab
  • An easy-to-use and cost-effective kit for the rapid detection and monitoring of newly emerging germs in ambulances and health-care facilities from Team Lethbridge Collegiate
  • A biological system that would be embedded into a patch to protect astronauts against the effects of radiation during space travel from the U of C team
  • A device for breaking down keratin wastes (like hair, feathers) in sewage, wastewater and the poultry industry from the Our Lady of the Snows Canmore high school team.

“You don’t have to be technical to understand what it is they’re doing, it is really significant in terms of solving real-world problems so anything from pollution, disease,” said Weber. “When we look at the intellectual property that’s being developed, you can see a life-long opportunity in terms of starting up new businesses, carrying on to graduate level studies and just expanding their own networks outside of this city to an international stage.”

Weber says a few of the projects that have been created over the years have turned into ventures with funding and all sorts of patents.

“There’s potential to not only develop further studies, within an academic context, but there’s huge potential to take it outside of an academic setting and move it into the economy,” she said.

This year over 300 international, multidisciplinary teams are expected to compete at iGEM in Boston.

For more information, visit the MindFuel website HERE.