VCU to Participate in a Four-School Coalition to Tackle Competitive iGEM Competition

Upon hearing the phrase “genetically engineered machine,” RoboCop or Terminator may come to mind. Surprisingly, the truth isn’t that far off.

Genetically engineered machines are synthetic systems that are engineered to operate in biological cells, and the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, in which Virginia Commonwealth University will participate later this year, is the largest undergraduate competition in America where students attempt to solve simple everyday problems through synthetic engineering.

“The iGEM competition is a good motivating tool to excite students and faculty into learning more about and contributing to synthetic biology research,” said Stephen Fong, Ph.D., VCU professor in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering and one of the coordinators of the project.

“It provides a framework for going through the scientific process from idea/hypothesis generation to a conclusion,” he said. “As a solely undergraduate endeavor, it helps make research more accessible to undergraduate students.”

In this year’s competition, VCU’s engineering team will be joining students from the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Bluefield State College and Virginia State University.

The coalition, called Virginia United, will use biology, chemistry and engineering to create a biosensor that is able to detect combinations of trace amounts of heavy metals that are toxic to marine aquatic animals. In creating this technology, they hope to create a sensor that will better help marine biologists measure aquatic health and levels of marine life in their respective watersheds.

“The name Virginia United says it all – by pooling resources, our joint iGEM team will provide the foundation for a regional center of excellence in synthetic biology research and education,” said George McArthur, a VCU graduate researcher who proposed the idea of Virginia United. He is the founder of the iGEM teams at VCU and UVA.

Fong agreed, adding that since the level of engineering required to compete in the competition is so high, teams that win the competition are usually those with many participants.

“Most of the best projects require a high level of creativity to develop and manpower to implement,” said Fong. “Both aspects of creativity and manpower can be addressed by forming a larger team.

“In our case, the collaborative participation of students and faculty from different schools stimulates the exchange of ideas from different background perspectives and allows us to have the manpower needed to successfully complete the project,” he said.

In the end, VCU’s team will play an integral role not only for this year’s competition, but also for furthering existing research of synthetic biology at VCU.

“I believe that VCU can become a strong contributor to synthetic biology research and education,” said Fong. “Beyond VCU's contributions, we hope to see Virginia in general become a focal point of synthetic biology research as the ties between VCU, UVA and Virginia Tech become stronger.”

The iGEM Jamboree is set for November in Massachusetts.