October 24, 2011

Cornell Engineers Win Biology Competition

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A team of Cornell undergraduates took first place in the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition held in Indianapolis, Ind., from Oct. 8 to Oct 10. The team was awarded for its work on molecular chips capable of synthesizing biopharmaceutical drugs at a lower cost, according to a University press release.

Cornell’s iGEM team will now advance to the world competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in November, the press release stated.

As part of the competition, the team had to complete a project over the summer in the field of biomolecular engineering and synthetic biology. Using a composite of genetic pieces known as “biobricks,” the team applied an engineering process to create a wafer-sized device that used enzymes rather than cells to convert inactive compounds into high-demand chemicals.

To synthesize these chemicals, members of the team extracted enzymes from the E. coli bacteria that were used in conversion process.

“Currently, these chemicals are produced or modified by living bacterial cells encapsulated in giant cell reactors,” iGEM senior adviser Malinka Walaliyadde ’12 said in a University press release. “The problem with [using cells, rather than enzymes] is that a lot of unnecessary products, or side-products, are also produced and have to be removed — this purification process can be extremely expensive … We can place the bacterial enzymes in this microfluidic device in exactly the right order to ensure maximum efficiency of useful chemical production and minimum side-product production.”

One of the team’s strategic advantages was its interdisciplinary nature, according to Prof. Xiling Shen, electrical and computer engineering, the team’s faculty adviser.

Of the 13 members on the iGEM team, students’ majors ranged from biological and chemical engineering to materials science and engineering physics, Shen said in the press release. This diverse coalition of academic concentrations helped in writing the project’s proposal, but also allowed the team to proceed at a fast pace after initial planning work began in April.

“These members contributed in a huge way by creating detailed computer models and allowing us to make use of Cornell’s diverse engineering facilities to fabricate our micro-fluidic devices,” Walaliyadde said in the press release. “[And] because Cornell is a leader in nanofabrication, we were able to use the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility to augment the biology portion of our project and actually make microfluidic chips that we could test our enzymes with.”

Original Author: Dennis Liu