SOUTH FORSYTH -- Lambert High School’s International Genetically Engineered Machine, or iGEM, team recently returned from Boston, bringing home a silver medal from the foundation’s international competition.
They beat out Yale, they boasted, which was awarded bronze.
The team of 14 students and their three teachers attended the five-day “Jamboree” Oct. 27-31, which was hosted at the Hynes Convention Center.
They were one of seven high school teams from the United States.
The yearly competition brings high school and college students from schools around the world who are interested in the field of synthetic biology to one locale – usually the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – to compete to see who has the best project.
This year saw the largest turnout, with more than 300 teams participating.
Though the iGEM project must be related to synthetic biology, it’s an open-ended competition within the field, Lambert senior Arjun Bhatt said.
“There’s not any specific event that you should do; you don’t have to research something just in medicine or agriculture,” he said. “You can pick any problem in the world and use synthetic biology to solve it.”
The problem Lambert’s team chose to focus on was micronutrient deficiencies and how they are diagnosed.
Micronutrient deficiencies affect 30 percent of the world’s population, and worldwide zinc deficiency, for example, is responsible for about 16 percent of lower respiratory tract infections, 18 percent of malaria and 10 percent of diarrheal disease, according to the World Health Organization.
Though zinc and other deficiencies are testable by taking blood samples from a person, current technology is time consuming, costly and difficult to transport to remote areas of the world.
“We researched an easier diagnoses and through the Styczynski lab at Georgia Tech, we found out that people are creating these biosensors that offer a low-cost, easy-access kit that diagnoses these populations in a shorter amount of time so we can assess who’s at high-risk and who needs the most immediate assistance,” said Neha Balachandran, a Lambert senior. “The biosensor is a kit a healthcare professional would take with them and put the [patient’s] blood in, and it will give you colors indicating if you have low, intermediate or high concentrations of that micronutrient.”
Like many new projects, Tech’s biosensor had some problems: the colors that tell a doctor what nutrients a person is deficient in overlapped.
“There’s not this sharp switch. It’s more a gradient of colors, and that can be problematic, especially when you’re interpreting the sensors in the field,” Bhatt said.
To make the technology better, Lambert’s team, which has been working on the project for the last nine months, devised a “switch” for the biosensors, which helps facilitate color pigment production and makes the readings clearer.
“We created a genetic circuit and engineered E.coli cells and we got proof of concept with one reporter,” Bhatt said.
Reporter genes, or “reporters,” tell a person whether a protein is being synthesized by producing visually identifiable characteristics, such as fluorescent or luminescent colors.
The florescent yellow indication they got confirmed that their “switch” worked.
But the project wasn’t judged solely on how well it operated’ rather, the team got some points for its applicability.
“Our project was designed around a specific biosensor in mind but it came to be a system that can be used by any biosensor,” said Jackson Harris, another senior.
For example, it could be used with Stanford and Brown University’s collaborative iGEM project, which worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, to create a balloon that will orbit Mars’ atmosphere.
“In that balloon, they’re going to insert biosensors that are going to detect elements in the atmosphere,” Bhatt said. “So if you have a calcium biosensor or a nitrogen biosensor, you can apply our project to those biosensors.”
Lambert senior Elynna Chang said the iGEM competition opens a lot of doors.
“A lot of the iGEM projects have gone on to become businesses or corporations or startup companies,” she said.
Former Lambert students who were members of in the school’s iGEM team have gone on to colleges such as Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.
The team is already discussing next year’s project, which will start in January, said Janet Standeven, the teacher in charge of the team.
Two other Lambert science teachers, Brittany Cantrell and Shelby Cochran, also worked with the students.
For more information on their project, visit 2016.igem.org/Team:LambertGA.