Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Associate Professor Jean Peccoud is leading a Virginia Tech team to compete in the 2007 International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition, an annual event organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that gives undergraduate students the opportunity to design and build an engineered biological system using standard DNA parts.

The team of six undergraduates includes:

  • Emily Delalla of Winchester, Va., a sophomore majoring in biology in the College of Science and psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
  • Matthew Lux of Raleigh, N.C., a senior majoring in electrical engineering in the College of Engineering
  • Blair Lyons of Marietta, Ga., a freshman majoring in general engineering in the College of Engineering and biochemistry in the College of Science
  • Nalin Pilapitiya of Fairfax, Va., a senior majoring in electrical engineering in the College of Engineering
  • Matthew Sweede of Fairfax, Va., a junior biology and biochemistry in the College of Science
  • Christopher Villareal of Yorktown, Va., a senior majoring in biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

The students are sponsored by the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Engineering, and College of Science. The team will be advised by David Ball, Brian Hartnett, Yizhi (Patrick) Cai and Jodi Lewis, each affiliated to Peccoud’s research group.

“The iGEM team currently meets twice a week, once at a journal club to discuss scientific papers on synthetic biology and also at a lab meeting, where the students can discuss work plans as well as meet with researchers in my lab. This is an excellent way for undergraduates to do cutting-edge research in what is an emerging discipline in the life sciences,” said Peccoud.

VBI’s Executive and Scientific Director Bruno Sobral remarked: “At VBI, we try to foster creative learning environments that allow students to come into direct contact with some of the very latest developments in scientific research. The iGEM project is a great example of how we can promote interaction between research faculty and their scientific teams on the one hand and undergraduate students who are just starting out on their career path on the other. ”

Peccoud added: “Everyone is excited about the project which gives the team the opportunity to combine mathematical modeling, engineering methods, chemical gene synthesis, and genetic engineering tools to better understand an important biological phenomenon. What’s really motivating for students and researchers alike is that one day the research that we are working on may have an impact on human health. The project starts in earnest over the summer and we will be announcing further details later in the year.”

Peccoud is a member of the VBI synthetic biology research group, whose projects include the development of computational and experimental methods to calibrate genetic parts used in the design of transformation vectors as well as the detailed study of gene networks. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Grenoble, France.

In addition to Peccoud, the iGEM team works closely with Bill Baumann, associate professor in electrical and computer engineering in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering. Baumann received his Ph.D. from John Hopkins University and conducts research in the control of systems and systems biology.

The iGEM team is currently seeking financial support from interested companies active in the life sciences. Funding is sought to support lab work and participation in the competition. Interested parties should contact Peccoud.

The team plans to present its completed project at the iGEM jamboree in Boston in November 2007.

About iGEM

The iGEM competition tests the idea that biological engineering can be performed more reproducibly through the use of standardized parts. iGEM hopes to discover creative new approaches to designing and building engineered biological systems while encouraging the development of collaborations and sharing of information and experiences. For more information please consult iGEM website.

About VBI

Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) at Virginia Tech has a research platform centered on understanding the “disease triangle” of host-pathogen-environment interactions in plants, humans and other animals. By successfully channeling innovation into transdisciplinary approaches that combine information technology and biology, researchers at VBI are addressing some of today’s key challenges in the biomedical, environmental and plant sciences.

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