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In just a few days, members from our team will be boarding a plane to Boston. When we arrive, we are participating in an annual synthetic biology competition against both foreign and domestic teams at an international conference, held by the International Genetically Engineered Machines Foundation (iGEM). There we will present our synthetic biology project designed and executed over the summer.

CU is heading to Boston for the iGEM Jamboree

by Leighla Tayefeh

In just a few days, members from our team will be boarding a plane to Boston. When we arrive, we are participating in an annual synthetic biology competition against both foreign and domestic teams at an international conference, held by the International Genetically Engineered Machines Foundation (iGEM). There we will present our synthetic biology project designed and executed over the summer.

Despite being named a “Jamboree”, the competition is not a free for all.  A specific set of criteria must be met in order to participate, including design of a wiki for the project (feel free to check ours out at this link: http://2014.igem.org/Team:CU-Boulder ), concept originality, benefit to society, and proof of concept.  Each year, teams identify a clinical and/or societal need and synthesize a biological system to address the issue. The iGEM competition is a forum for undergraduates in molecular biology, advised by graduate students and faculty, to gain hands on experience working in a lab on a synthetic biology project that we (the undergrads) designed.

Hard to believe I had never heard of iGEM until earlier this year.  But the idea of synthetic biology’s vast potential to benefit society enticed me to join the team. As intimidated as I was to embark upon something new, I began meeting with several other prospective iGEMers weekly to decide upon this years’ project. We wanted to stand out and work with new technology, so this led us straight to the endogenous CRISPR-Cas9 system. Now, we needed to decide how we would apply this technology.  We chose the clinical need for an alternative to antibiotics.

At that point, our project took off like bacteria without antibiotic selection ….

We broke up into teams across three labs, one on main campus and two in JSCBB. This way productivity would be at its peak each and every week. With only a short time to reach our project goals, we needed all the motivation (coffee and late nights) we could get. A few came with experience but most didn’t.  Regardless, each of us gained unique, hands on experience and learned to problem solve when something went wrong—which happened quite often. More importantly, we pulled together from different stages of life and completed a project we could call our own.

We have engineered a novel phage therapy utilizing the endogenous CRISPR-Cas9 system from Streptococcus pyogenes packaged into non-replicating phage. CRISPR-Cas9 systems target 20-32 nucleotide DNA sequences within the bacterial genome. Successful CRISPR targeting to the genome leads to a Cas9-mediated DNA double strand break and subsequent cell death. By cloning targeted CRISPR sequences into the endogenous CRISPR-Cas9 system and introducing this system into Escherichia coli by transformation or through phage infection, we have demonstrated sequence specific killing of bacteria in a heterogeneous bacterial population. The broad ranging applications of such an adaptable and cost effective antibiotic therapy range from healthcare to agriculture, and represent the future of antibacterial research.

With research that can change the future of medicine, my team and I are ready to go to Boston.  We hope that the judges find our work exciting and we take home a gold medal. Wish us luck on this journey, and I can’t wait to tell you all about our adventure once we return home.