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.
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 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.
In the Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River, fertilizer runoff is one of the primary pollutants. Fertilizer runoff contains phosphate, which is very dangerous to the environment in high concentrations because it causes a dangerous growth of algae, forming algal blooms. These blooms produce dangerous toxins and decrease the oxygen present in the environment, resulting in dead zones.
Unfortunately, plants do not uptake enough of this phosphorus in the environment and plants cannot easily use the phosphorus in its inorganic and poorly soluble as the mineral compounds cadmium phosphate and calcium phosphate. Local organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are working to create policies that limit the usage of fertilizer to prevent further runoff and damage to the Bay. But these policies may not be enough on their own, and they do not address the inorganic phosphate pollution that is already in the Bay and isn’t going away.
Our project: Using Rhizobium to clean the environment
In light of this, our team decided to engineer the uptake of phosphate in Rhizobacteria and the plants they have a mutualistic relationship with. Rhizobium naturally converts inorganic phosphate to organic phosphate, and our genetic modifications would increase the uptake of phosphate and increase the conversion of inorganic to organic phosphorus.
A locally relevant problem
When deciding on our project, our team went through several rounds of voting to settle on a specific topic. We wanted to approach an issue that affected both portions of our team, the portion in the Baltimore area associated with the community lab Baltimore Underground Science Space (BUGSS) and the portion in the New York area associated with the community lab Genspace. We also wanted to be sure that synthetic biology would be a useful and effective way of addressing whatever issue we chose. We decided to address phosphate pollution since it is such a huge issue on the East Coast. Additionally, phosphate pollution has occurred at its scale because of human mismanagement: human error damaged the environment, which is not equipped to counteract it. This is why we believe that synthetic biology—a solution inspired by and designed with nature—is the best solution.
However, our team not only wanted to address the issue of phosphate pollution, we also wanted to address this issue in a way that would be specific to New York and Baltimore. These areas are both coastal cities, and as such, they are especially susceptible to flooding. As climate change intensifies, there is an ever-increasing concern about the threat of flooding, especially in coastal areas. Many people have proposed increasing cities’ “sponginess” (the use of nature to combat susceptibility to flooding in urban areas) as a way of combating the risk of flooding. Our project will use plants to capture the phosphorus before it can get to the Bay or Hudson River and we will build floating wetlands to combat the phosphorus already in the water. Together these will contribute to the vision of a “spongier” Baltimore and New York City in the face of climate threats.
The 2022 Crew: PCBusters
The East Coast BioCrew, although located in New York and Baltimore, share proximity to major waterways: the Hudson River and the Chesapeake Bay. Despite the prohibition on the usage of PCBs decades ago, these two waterways are polluted by over a million tons of PCBs.
Exposure to PCBs is harmful to humans and ecosystems. Since this chemical is man-made, the environment is unequipped to combat it. Our proposed solution used synthetic biology to address PCB contamination. The two main goals of our project were to (1) to develop a biological sensor to detect PCBs and (2) to degrade PCBs into less harmful chemicals. Our 2022 team won a silver medal! See their work on their team wiki and check out their project promotion video!
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.