What is iGEM?
The International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition brings together students from around the world in a global competition for teams of high school, college, and overgrad students. There are over 300 teams from 6 continents, and each team solves a real-world problem or makes a discovery by using genetic engineering. In the past, our teams have:
- engineered probiotic bacteria to produce neurotransmitters which would help improve mental health through nutrition rather than pharmaceutical drugs (2021)
- engineered phytoplankton to survive in low-iron regions of the ocean so that they could increase their absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere (2020)
- engineered bacteria to keep our guts healthy and resist secondary infections after a round of antibiotics (2019)
- engineered bacteria to produce a snake venom protein that could be used as first-aid to treat catastrophic bleeding (2018)
- engineered bacteria to break down plastic that contaminates Baltimore’s Inner Harbor (2016 and 2017)
Being in iGEM has changed my perspective of the world around me. Now, I can use both my passion for science and my community to change my city and the world for the better.
Baltimore BioCrew 2016 and 2017
graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic High School and Stanford University
Who are the East Coast BioCrew?
We’re a high school iGEM team based out of two community labs: BUGSS in Baltimore and Genspace in Brooklyn, NY. Our team is made up of students from schools all over the DC/Baltimore and NY/NJ regions. Although we are from different schools, our team of 22 students comes together to design a project and carry out our work on Zoom, at BUGSS, and at Genspace. Every Saturday throughout the summer, we meet and collaborate to carry out the experiments to create the engineered bacteria. Plus, we meet online during the week to carry out background research and engage with stakeholders. Our common goal is to use biology to improve the world.
Why is iGEM important?
Baltimore Underground Science Space (BUGSS) has been hosting iGEM teams since 2015. Each year, the team has won gold, silver, or bronze medals, as well as awards for Best Presentation and Best Measurement. This year, we’re delighted to work with Genspace, who is returning to iGEM following a hiatus since 2016. As part of iGEM, students learn many important skills like teamwork, problem-based knowledge, entrepreneurial thinking, collaboration, responsible science and engineering, safe lab work and project design, presentation skills, and scientific communication. Graduates of the BioCrew have gone on to Brown University, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, UNC-Chapel Hill, USC, and many other prestigious schools, often on full scholarships.
iGEM is a life-changing experience
Science is FUN
Science is CREATIVE
Science is RELEVANT
Science is a TEAM SPORT
Science is DIVERSE
The iGEM Jamboree
The iGEM Jamboree allows teams to travel to Paris in October to present their work to judges and meet other teams from all over the world. The Jamboree is an amazing experience that allows us to collaborate with other teams and showcase the work of our students at an international level.
The 2022 Crew
When deciding the topic for our iGEM 2022 project, we considered how we could best use synthetic biology to solve global environmental issues. Additionally, we wanted to build on similar efforts, so we researched previous iGEM projects using iGEM’s Phoenix Project (https://after.igem.org/initiatives/phoenix-project/) software. We examined these projects and their wikis before selecting three topics that we believed could be best addressed with synthetic biology: combating antibiotic resistance, fighting red tides, and degrading polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Our team struggled to choose one topic, so we split into smaller groups to further research and present our findings to the entire team. We used scientific literature to better understand the feasibility and relevance of each topic. After much debate and several close votes, we decided to pursue a project on PCB detection and degradation. We thought this topic is closely connected to our geographical locations and combined feasibility and ambition.
Our team, although located in New York and Baltimore, shared proximity to major waterways: the Hudson River and the Chesapeake Bay. The relevance of PCB caused our team to quickly become interested to learn more about PCB pollution. Despite the prohibition on the usage of PCBs decades ago, these two waterways are polluted by over a million tons of PCBs. Therefore, we chose to investigate the degradation of PCBs for our iGEM project.
Our research suggests that exposure to PCBs is harmful to humans and ecosystems. Since this chemical is man-made, the environment is unequipped to combat it. Some current solutions for PCB removal include land burial and incineration, which are harmful to the environment. Land burial only displaces PCBs instead of removing the contamination, and burning PCBs create more harmful chemicals like polychlorinated dibenzodioxins and polychlorinated dibenzofurans that are also associated with cancer. Other solutions, such as water excavation, are also dangerous because they involve the transportation of toxic chemicals. However, they are expensive due to the intensive regulation of the spreading of sediment. SERS, SPR, electrochemical impediment sensors, whole-cell sensors, gas chromatography, and microflow-inercensor chips are technologies used to detect PCBs; however, they are expensive, and many are found only in well-equipped labs.
Our proposed solution uses synthetic biology to address PCB contamination. If a synthetic biology solution becomes available, other harmful solutions will not be employed, resulting in smaller nonprofits having open access to a secure technique to help underprivileged communities affected by PCB contamination. Clearly, out of all the possible solutions, synthetic biology is the safest as it involves neither the transportation nor the creation of toxic chemicals and, if administered properly, will not harm any ecosystems. Due to the need for a sustainable, safe, and cheap solution for the detection and degradation of PCBs, our project is a relevant application of synthetic biology.
The two main goals of this project are:
(1) to develop a biological sensor to detect PCBs and
(2) to degrade PCBs into less harmful chemicals
We plan to achieve our goals by adding to the accomplishments of other projects by consolidating their best ideas and mechanisms into a functioning organism. We understand that we may not be able to achieve all of these goals, but we hope that we can advance these goals further than previous groups have been able to.
Our work was inspired by research from two previous iGEM teams: Stockholm and Chalmers-Gothenburg. The Stockholm 2020 team tried to develop a contaminant sensor for waterways, which inspired our biomodular PCB sensor. The Chalmers-Gothenburg 2019 project took genes from multiple bacteria and inserted them into yeast. However, many of the genes were not successfully integrated and expressed. We wish to apply the concepts they used but take the project further than they did. Locally, the Baltimore National Aquarium and other groups in the Inner Harbor have conducted tests and proposed solutions to PCB contamination. The Magothy River Association in New York has also run similar experiments.
The 2021 Crew
Our 2021 project involved using genetic engineering to improve mental health. Through our iGEM project, we hoped to reduce the negative effects of depression and anxiety through the implementation of psychobiotics in the Baltimore community. With the increasing lack of mental health services in Baltimore and rising poverty, it is imperative that we aim to reduce these health inequalities. Mental health has become a major problem during this pandemic as many people’s circumstances and situations have placed people in dire mental conditions. Our project aimed to reduce the effects depression and anxiety, specifically in underserved communities in Baltimore that don’t have easy access to mental health services or medication.Our 2021 team won a silver medal! See their work on their team wiki and check out their project promotion video!
The 2020 Crew
Our 2020 project was Phytoplankton Revitalization: Replenishing the Backbone of the Marine Ecosystem. In 1/3 of the world’s oceans, the iron concentration limits phytoplankton growth. Iron is required for the photosynthesis and is a critical micronutrient for the base of the marine food web (Schoffman). Higher concentrations of iron in the ocean or a better ability to capture iron could stabilize phytoplankton. This would also reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and preserve the Antarctic ice. Our project engineered cyanobacteria to transport iron into cells and reduce it to the bioavailable Fe(II) form. The increased iron levels will increase photosynthesis and growth of phytoplankton which will absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Our 2020 team won a GOLD medal! See their work on their team wiki and check out their project promotion video!
The 2019 Crew
Without our even knowing, the colonies of bacteria living in our digestive tracts provide crucial defenses against dangerous diseases, like C.Diff, Colitis, and even, in some cases, cancer. However, when we take antibiotics to fight infections, we also attack all of those helpful bacteria. This leaves us exposed to more infections, which means we need more antibiotics, creating a cycle of antibiotic dependency. In order to combat this, our project, Gut Wars, used Mucous Associated Functional Factors (MAFFs), which are naturally found in the human microbiome. MAFFs are regulatory proteins that encourage bacteria diversity and growth. Our bacteria will help keep our guts healthy after a round of antibiotics. Check out the work of our 2019 team, which won a GOLD medal and the award for Best Measurement, on their team wiki.
The 2018 Crew
In 2017, Baltimore suffered from 301 deaths due to gun violence, many of which were a result of blood loss. As students who live in and around Baltimore City, we knew that this issue needed to be addressed. We realized that lives could be saved with a reliable, cost efficient blood-clotting alternative to the fibrinogen-laced bandages currently on the market. Our method to cause blood clots was to express Factor V activator RVV-V gamma in E.coli. We intend to embed this protease into a bandage to treat gunshot or stab victims. Our 2018 team won a bronze medal and the award for Best Presentation for their project CoagulanceRx! See their work on their team wiki.