Boston, Mass. – Three Upper School students from Charles Wright Academy were members of an award-winning team of researchers at the 2017 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Giant Jamboree held Nov. 9-13.
Kian Croston ’18, Keshava Katti ’18, and Jonathan Zacarias ’18 were part of a 13-person team that also included high school and college students from Bellarmine Preparatory School, the University of Washington at Tacoma, and the United States Military Academy. The team conducted its research through Tacoma’s Readiness Acceleration and Innovation Network, or RAIN, a nonprofit dedicated to unlocking local innovation in the life sciences cofounded by CWA alumnus and University of Washington at Tacoma professor Dr. David Hirschberg ’80, who now serves as RAIN’s director of research.
The goal of their project was to engineer a biological circuit that utilized E. coli plasmid DNA sequences and a green fluorescent protein (GFP) reporter to detect arsenic. “As far as the science of our research, our biosensor utilizes E. coli cellular machinery and an indicator common in synthetic biology known as the green fluorescent protein (GFP),” Kian explains. “The idea behind the circuit is that some of the genes native to our cell cultures will produce proteins that bond with arsenic, and then those bonded proteins cause the production of GFP. In less scientific lingo: Add arsenic, and our cultures will fluoresce under a blue, indigo, or ultraviolet light.”
Practical applications for this detection include both military and civilian use to identify hazardous substances or environmental toxins. “Our research team has taken our plasmid circuit DNA and put it into a paper ticket,” Keshava says. “The goal is for anyone to be able to go to Home Depot, for example, and buy a stack of arsenic-detecting ticket. They would put a sample of their soil or water on the ticket and determine whether the environmental sample contains arsenic based on the intensity of fluorescence. Our tickets would be an inexpensive and easily accessible alternative to the costly and pollutant process of arsenic detection currently. Our biological circuit could be extended to more than detecting arsenic, but other heavy metals, such as lead, or even drugs like heroin and fentanyl, as well.”
All three CWA students reached out to Dr. Hirschberg after he gave a presentation on synthetic biology research to the entire CWA Upper School in May. They were inspired to work with an alumnus in a field they were already passionate about. After meeting with Dr. Hirschberg to discuss their interests, he suggested they join the iGEM team established by West Point, who was partnering with researchers at RAIN. “The iGEM project is student-driven, and these students all had to decide what they wanted to do and figure out exactly how that would happen—the initiative and motivation to succeed is very strong,” says the team’s adviser, RAIN Head Research Scientist Dr. Judy Nguyen. “There are scientific concepts that can be very difficult to grasp, and these students charge right in and figure it out. Despite the difference in ages and school level, most of the students were coming in at a similar level of research experience and exposure.”
Kian agrees that having a rich laboratory science background was instrumental in the team’s success. “The lab work at CWA has been really useful in RAIN—it’s hard to do science when you don’t know proper lab technique,” he says. Upper School science teacher Ryan Johnson, who leads the independent research course in which Kian and Jonathan are enrolled, is focusing on another important aspect of research: communication. “In my class I’m really pushing the students to practice speaking to the public,” he says. “How do they engage with their ideas to their peers, their mentors, their advisors, and to the public? How can they also write well? As a scientist, you need to be able to do both well, and I know these qualities served them well at the iGEM conference.”
The iGEM Giant Jamboree is an international competition for students at the high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels who are interested in the field of synthetic biology. This year it was held at Hynes Convention Center in Boston. iGEM began in January 2003 as an independent study course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where students developed biological devices to make cells blink. This course became a summer competition in 2004 with five teams. In 2017 the iGEM competition has expanded to 310 teams from more than 40 countries. The RAIN team, although composed primarily of high school students, competed at the undergraduate level, where they earned their bronze medal—in the same place as teams from Harvard University and Stanford University.
The opportunity to compete against teams from around the world may lead to future collaborations. “One of the best suggestions for improvement came from a judge who came by our exhibition space where we were demonstrating our hardware submission of an imaging system for our tickets,” Jonathan says. “He brought to our attention another research group who had been doing very similar work for the imaging of organic compounds. He suggested that they might be willing to share their work, as it is much the same as what we are doing, and it would mean that they were expanding their own system from not only organic substance detection, but also to the detection of GFP and other like reporters as well.”
Ultimately, the group is looking forward to continued progress on their current project and has been inspired to further dive into scientific exploration thanks to iGEM. “It was amazing to go and see the extent of what is possible for students like us,” Jonathan says. “We are not the only ones seeking to better our world through the sciences and through synthetic biology in particular. While we knew this, it was amazing to go and see in person not only the number of people there, but also the amount of dedication they had toward the common overall goal.”