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UW student team wins world championship in synthetic biology competition

Cameron Turtle A team of UW undergraduates from a variety of departments, including the Department of Bioengineering, has won the top prize at the 2011 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) World Championship Jamboree, a top student competition in synthetic biology. The contest was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, Mass., in November.

For their project, the UW team used synthetic biology to tackle two different problems: the production of better biologically-based diesel fuel, which could help reduce dependency on non-renewable fuel sources; and the creation of a biological compound that could promote the digestion of gluten, which could provide relief for people who have a gluten intolerance.

For the diesel fuel problem, the team developed a strain of the bacterium E. coli that produces a variety of alkanes, the main constituents of diesel fuel. Microbially-produced biofuels would offer some advantages over current biofuels, such as ethanol, which is less energy-efficient than diesel fuel, or biodiesel, which can be corrosive in engines and fuel pipelines or cause clogging at low temperatures.

For the gluten-digestion part of the project, the team identified an enzyme that has potential for degrading gluten, and re-engineered it to increase that gluten-degradation activity. Scientists have worked on a candidate therapeutic for breaking down gluten, but have struggled to make it work in the highly acidic environment of the gut. The enzyme the UW team identified, by contrast, already had potential for degrading gluten in acidic environments.

The UW iGEM team included undergraduate students from the Departments of Bioengineering, Biochemistry, Microbiology, Materials Science, and Computer Science and Engineering, as well as graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who served as team leaders. The students were also assisted by three faculty advisers: Herbert Sauro, associate professor of bioengineering, who works on computer-aided design of biochemical interactions; David Baker, professor of biochemistry, whose research focuses on prediction and design of the three-dimensional structures of proteins; and Eric Klavins, assistant professor of electrical engineering, who studies how bacteria and other systems can self-organize.

The team’s victory was featured on the UW Today news website recently, and more information about their project is available on the UW team’s website.