Current members of 2018 Cornell iGEM team gather in front of Weill Hall.

December 3, 2018

Project Team Spotlight on Cornell iGEM: Furthering Synthetic Biology Research

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Biological engineering is a up-and-coming area of research with broad applications ranging from protein engineering to prosthetics. And here at Cornell, a group of students are working — and competing — to develop biological engineering solutions to solve a diverse set of scientific challenges.

Cornell’s branch of the International Genetically Engineered Machine is a multidisciplinary undergraduate research project team comprised of more than 40 students from four colleges at Cornell. The Cornell iGEM team, supervised by Prof. Jan Lammerding, biomedical engineering, builds projects that solve real-world problems with a heavy emphasis on synthetic biology — a branch of biological engineering that aims at the redesign of biological systems that do not already exist in the natural world.

Members of Cornell iGEM compete against hundreds of other iGEM teams from around the globe each year in the iGEM Giant Jamboree, an international synthetic biology competition held in Boston. At this October’s competition, Cornell iGEM’s project “Oscillate” involved developing a band-pass filter to aid in frequency-based signal response.

“Our team worked to create a novel biological system to respond to oscillatory signals and filter those signals,” said Saachi Gopal ’20, business lead for Cornell iGEM.

According to the team’s website, regulating frequency response can be challenging as most biological systems are not equipped to handle frequency-based signals. In addition, frequency-based signals tend to be noisy and lack fine resolution.

Cornell’s iGEM team sought to combat these challenges by developing a novel band-pass filter, which selects only for signals of an intermediate frequency that fall within an allowable “band” — and removes signals that fall outside of this band, thus mirroring an electronic band-pass.

“This was the first time the team explored a topic that aimed to further the foundation of synthetic biology rather than build a product for a more specific synthetic biology problem,” Gopal said. Their project earned the team a bronze medal classification at the Giant Jamboree.

Although biological band-pass filters have been built before, Gopal said that none truly mimic an electronic band-pass in that they all rely on amplitude-based inputs and thus only provide a simplified binary response. She said that Cornell iGEM’s system serves as a true filter and produces a quantifiable output that oscillates in time when fed an oscillatory temperature signal.

“We built a robust model that not only models the system effectively using new methods and a proof-based approach, but is also a modular tool available for synthetic biologists to use in the future,” Gopal said.

Cornell iGEM meets as a team once per week and is broken down into five subteams, each of which is responsible for different components of the project. The five subteams include wet lab, policy and practices, product development, wiki and design, product development and business.

“Wet Lab is at the heart of the synthetic biology component for our projects, utilizing standard techniques in molecular biology and chemistry to clone DNA segments into E. coli and solve real-world problems,” said Amy Zhong ’20, lead of the wiki and design subteam. The wiki and design subteam codes and designs the competition website, which factors into the scores awarded at the Giant Jamboree.

Zhong explained that the policy and practices subteam examines the impact of the project through community engagement and collaborations, while business creates marketing plans for the project and finds ways to generate funding for the team.

“Product development applies design thinking and various engineering disciplines to build user-centered applications related to the foundational idea of our project,” Zhong continued.

The group has competed in the Jamboree several times before, and has won several gold medal classifications in addition to this year’s bronze.

In 2015, iGEM’s project was “fishPHARM,” which won awards for best supporting entrepreneurship, best environmental project and best applied design.

“FishPHARM is a novel drug delivery system and probiotic treatment for bacterial coldwater disease,” Zhong said.  The fishPHARM project included an app that monitored nutrient concentration in fish hatcheries.

In 2017, Cornell iGEM worked on a project called “Oxyponics,” which was awarded Best Supporting Entrepreneurship at the 2017 Jamboree.

“Oxyponics is a biologically integrated hardware system that uses oxidative stress to boost hydroponic crop yields,” Zhong said, referring to the method of agriculture that substitutes soil with water and nutrients.

Cornell iGEM is still in the process of brainstorming project ideas for their 2019 project .