On her first day in a lab, Janki Patel, a sophomore biochemistry major, broke her electrophoresis gel and questioned if she was capable of conducting science research. Now, after a summer working with a new synthetic biology club on campus, Stony Brook iGEM, Patel said she is able to run up to four electrophoresis gels at once without damaging one.
The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) is an international organization that furthers synthetic biology research through its educational outreach and student competitions. From Oct. 30 to Nov. 3, Stony Brook iGEM will present its research project at iGEM’s annual undergraduate competition called the Giant Jamboree in Boston, Mass.
“Before I came along synthetic biology was not a thing on campus at all,” Gregory Poterewicz, the club founder and president, who began pushing for the clubs creation last spring, said. “The goal of the club is to not just spread the word that there’s a competition going on and we’re apart of it, but it’s also a way for us to let people know that this is a new and growing field of biology they can be a part of too.”
Synthetic biology is a science that combines molecular biology, biotechnology and genetic engineering. Synthetic biologists use the principles of engineering in biological systems to conduct experiments and manipulate parts of the system to produce a desired outcome.
Stony Brook iGEM chose to do its research project on finding an alternative to the global health issue of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance is when antibiotics are used to fight pathogenic bacteria so often that the bacteria begins to be less and less affected by the medicine until the antibiotics are unable to fight the bacteria at all.
Stony Brook iGEM was interested in researching an alternative way to fight pathogenic bacteria that would not encounter the antibiotic resistance.
The first goal of Stony Brook iGEM’s research project was to design Escherichia coli (E. coli) to detect and kill a pathogenic bacteria called Pseudomonas. The E. coli would be able to kill the pathogenic bacteria by producing a peptide called melittin, which has the ability to kill pathogenic bacteria by destabilizing its cell membrane. The ability to manipulate melittin could become a solution to limitations of antibiotics like antibiotic resistance.
“This peptide can actually kill any cell that it comes in contact with so we don’t want to produce it around good cells,” said Patel, who was able to get the melittin to be produced by the E. coli in the lab this summer. “The second part of the project is the detection system, which allows the melittin to be produced only around the pathogenic bacteria.”
Poterewicz and his team of ten other students are still completing part two of the research project, finalizing their presentation that top scientists and schools from around the world will see, and finishing their educational outreach wiki page that will be judged at the competition as well.
In the spring of 2013, Poterewicz pitched iGEM to the director of undergraduate biology, Dr. J. Peter Gergen, and received the direction he needed to form a legitimate, long-term and well-funded biology club on campus.
With the little science research experience he had and the determination to create this club, Poterewicz knew it was going to be expensive. He said $25,900 was required to fund the research elements of the club, the competition registration and travel expenses. The team registration fee was $3,500 and the attendance fee of $750 per person added up to $9,000, including the teams adviser.
Poterewicz spent the next year pitching the club to department chairs, networking, giving presentations, writing letters and trying to get his club off the ground. He met with Gergen weekly to discuss what he needed to do next to ensure the clubs success.
“The ATP that was spent was mostly his,” Gergen joked. “This is an example of a student who had an idea and received the broad-based support he needed to pursue his dream.”
In total, the club secured almost $30,000 in funding within the last year, half through research grants, monetary donations, department commitments, off-campus sponsorships, a gofundme account and some bake sales. One large monetary donation in particular was from an anonymous donor, who pitched in $16,000. The Office of the Vice Provost contributed $3,500 for the iGEM registration fee and is committed to next year’s fee so long as iGEM proves to be a positive and valuable experience for students.
Poterewicz said iGEM is a unique experience compared to other research opportunities because in its lab, undergraduate students are equals.
“It’s not that they’re cleaning glassware and maybe months later they get to do what the grad students tell them to do,” Poterewicz said. “Now they’re actually running their own experiments, now they’re actually working with a team of students and coming up with their own ideas. You set up your own goals and you do your own project and I feel like thats so much better than doing someone elses project. It’s so much more rewarding.”