Virginia Tech students are joining students from four other academic institutions in Virginia and West Virginia to form Virginia United, a regional team that will compete in the 2010 International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition, the nation's premier synthetic biology event for undergraduates.

Seventeen students from Virginia Tech, Bluefield State College, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Virginia State University are currently collaborating on a project to design a biosensor to detect heavy metals that are toxic to fish.

The Virginia Tech portion of the team includes

  • Matt Lux of Raleigh, N.C., a Ph.D. student in the genetics, bioinformatics, and computational biology program, who is serving as the team’s graduate advisor;
  • Daniel Canache, of Alexandria, Va., a junior majoring in engineering science and mechanics in the College of Engineering;
  • Dasha Nesterova of Fairfax, Va., a sophomore majoring in biological sciences in the College of Science;
  • Jane Canter, of Blacksburg, Va., a junior majoring in biological sciences in the College of Science;
  • Joe Edwards, of Palmyra, Va., a senior majoring in biological sciences in the College of Science; and
  • Sara Brickman, of Chantilly, Va., a senior majoring in psychology and biological sciences in the College of Science.

Synthetic biology brings together biology, chemistry, and engineering to enable the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems as well as the redesign of existing, natural biological systems for purpose-driven applications. The iGEM competition focuses on research in synthetic biology and gives undergraduate students the opportunity to design and build an engineered biological system using standard DNA parts.

“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 Virginia Commonwealth University graduate researcher and founder of the iGEM teams at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia, who proposed the combined team. “This ambitious multi-institutional effort will provide a model for further cooperation that will build on Virginia’s reputation as a magnet for technology business and research and promote a wide range of scientific advances.”

The Virginia United project, “Co-Design of a Biosensor of Multiple Toxins with Quorum Sensing Amplifiers,” will involve genetically engineering a biosensor that can detect levels of mercury, copper, and zinc that could be potentially harmful for fish.

While being subjected to small amounts of each of these chemicals individually may not be dangerous for fish, exposure to combinations of even minute amounts can be toxic. The goal is to develop a device that can identify when various combinations of these chemicals are present.

Three sub-teams have been created to focus on specific aspects of the project, which include an input layer (to sense the presence of the chemicals), logic layer (to elicit a determined response, including signal amplification using quorum sensing), and output layer (where a readout signal is used to report what toxins are present).

The team says they plan to find the best implementation of the biosensor by exploring three distinct design strategies.

“Like many engineering projects, there are a variety of ways to design and implement a Synthetic Biology project,” explained Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Associate Professor Jean Peccoud, who serves as an advisor for the team. “The goal of the team is to create three different versions of a single design, which will allow them to compare these approaches in an effort to find an optimal solution. The concept of this project could also be applicable to other areas, such as the detection of bioterrorism agents.”

The Virginia United iGEM team is partially funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop GenoCAD, an open source Web-based application that allows users to design genetic constructs made of standardized genetic parts. iGEM will provide the GenoCAD development team with an opportunity to assess how the tool can catalyze the exploration of creative new approaches to designing and building engineered biological systems while encouraging the development of collaborations and sharing of information and experiences within a workgroup.

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