Courtesy of Cornell iGEM

Cornell iGEM is a project team dedicated to solving problems through synthetic biology.

March 21, 2024

Ten Gold Medals in 13 Years: Cornell iGEM’s Secrets for Success

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On Sunday night, the Cornell International Genetically Engineered Machine team decided on a project to compete in the 2024 iGEM Grand Jamboree. The Grand Jamboree is an annual competition in Paris hosted by the iGEM Foundation, a non-profit committed to the advancement of synthetic biology. With its sights set on another award-winning biology project, Cornell iGEM will return to the competition this fall alongside more than 300 iGEM teams from across the world.

Cornell iGEM, one of 34 project teams supported by the College of Engineering, is a group of around 40 active members dedicated to synthetic biology. Members span a variety of class years and fields of study. Each year, iGEM comes up with a new project that uses genetic engineering to develop solutions to real-world problems. 

The team’s 2024 project, Oncurex, aims to improve the production of ursolic acid, a natural material with anti-cancer properties. According to Team Lead Michael Constant, the typical process to extract ursolic acid from loquat trees is environmentally taxing. To combat this issue, Cornell iGEM aims to sustainably bioengineer the compound for large-scale production.

Cornell iGEM is no stranger to gold medals, having earned 10 in the past 13 years. The team’s most recent medal was one of 191 golds awarded last year. The team owes its success to each member’s passion and dedication, according to Wet Lab Co-lead Isaac Chang ’25. 

“It’s a group of individuals who really want to see this project succeed, and everyone is willing to put in the work and effort. We have a great camaraderie,” Chang said.

Cornell iGEM is composed of five sub-teams — wet lab, product development, policy and practices, business and wiki — each with a unique skill set and contribution to the project. For example, the wet lab crafts biological components, while wiki designs a website to make Cornell iGEM’s work accessible to the public. 

Each spring semester, Cornell iGEM begins the design process with an eight-week brainstorming period. Constant described it as a long and detailed endeavor.

“It’s like a March Madness-style bracket,” Constant said. “Each team member creates their own project and then we narrow it down to two or three proposals.” 

Once the team decides on what project to pursue, the research period begins. The bulk of product design begins in late spring and lasts throughout the summer. Many team members stay on campus during the summer, putting in about 15-20 hours of work each week. The product design period is busy but rewarding, according to Chang.

“Our team went into the lab together, checked in with leads and asked for help when needed,” Chang said. “But it was very independent — we knew that each of us was playing a vital role in how the project was going to be shaped.”

After the summer design period, the team uses the fall semester to tend to the small details. In October, the team finalizes the project for competition. Cornell iGEM typically sends around six members to Paris, including team leads and a few select members. 

For Cornell iGEM, the legacy of gold medals and the obstacles faced during the design process go hand-in-hand. According to Chang, the bioengineering technique that the team used in its 2023 gold-medal-winning project — ENERGEM — did not work during the early development stage.

“We weren’t entirely sure why [our methodology was not working], and that’s how science sometimes works,” Chang said. “This made us adjust to focusing more on the modeling aspect of the project, which definitely helped us earn that gold medal.”

By the end of that summer, Cornell iGEM successfully used software to model the breakdown of caffeine into 7-methylxanthine — an expensive chemical often used to treat near-sightedness. The team earned a gold medal at the Grand Jamboree for its model to produce 7-methylxanthine from coffee in a relatively cheap and environmentally friendly way, according to Constant.

For both Constant and Chang, it’s the tight-knit community of driven students working for each other — not the prizes — that makes iGEM so special.

“[The students on the team] support you in any way they can, and being in that community has really allowed me to be comfortable in my ideas and let my creativity flow,” Constant said. “Being in iGEM, we grow together.”

Marissa Gaut can be reached at [email protected].