Playing with the Legos of life

Concordia team turning microscopic biology into machinery.

A group of Concordia students and professors would love to use algae to fuel your car, fill your belly, and improve your life. The team, composed of 23 members, will showcase their research at a synthetic biology jamboree next month in Boston, Mass.

The iGEM (which stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition is in its 12th year and brings together dozens of synthetic biology teams – and their work – from across the world to showcase their talents, scoop the competition, and pick one another’s brains. This will be Concordia’s second time attending.

David Oram and Dilan Jaunky have been working together with their teammates since February on Concordia’s iGEM project, which seeks to develop a toolkit for artificially manufacturing algae by providing the basic building blocks needed to genetically engineer them.

Their toolkit will include many small and useful parts of an algae’s genetic code. Once finished, scientists will be able to put parts as needed to make what they want.

“We’re looking at ways to increase production so you get more bang for your buck,” Oram said.

That isn’t all the team is up to, though. “70 per cent of our project is the toolkit, and 30 per cent is our wild, wild ideas,” Jaunky said.

One of these wild ideas could change the way we fuel our cars by exploiting the fact that microalgae naturally produce hydrocarbons, the broad array of chemical substances which form the foundations of modern civilization. The gas in our cars, the wax on our skis, and the plastic bottles that hold our detergent and soft drinks are all thanks to hydrocarbons. For the less developed world, coal is the hydrocarbon sustaining their economies. Most of the hydrocarbons we use today come from fossil fuels. There may not be a lot of fossil fuels left, but microalgae which could produce them on a large scale would be very useful.

The team used a gene for a thioesterase – this is an enzyme that can break a bond formed by sulfur atoms. Some of the hydrocarbons produced naturally by algae have these kinds of bonds.

The resulting molecules are slightly different and far more useful. “Not necessarily for the cell, but more usable for us,” Oram said. The hydrocarbons are shorter, which decreases the amount of processing that needs to be done after the chemicals are produced.

Not only can algae be engineered to produce hydrocarbons, but they could also become a super-food.

“They’ve been used as a food source for hundreds of years,” Oram said. Some people put Chlorella powder in their water to make an energy drink. “There’s already protein shakes made out of it,” Jaunky added.

All that remains is to supercharge nutritional value of algae, and the Concordia team has been working with one gene that codes for an enzyme which, in turn, creates omega-3 fatty acids. The algae could then be added whole to any meal. “You could put it on your salads,” Jaunky said.

The Concordia team makes all this happen with promoter genes that code for proteins and allow the scientists to force the cell to produce new things.

The genes have to come from somewhere. Often, genes can be found in an animal or plant on campus. If not, they can be purchased from elsewhere. “We can order DNA,” Oram said.

One copy of a gene isn’t particularly helpful, though. You need to copy the gene dozens of times, wrap it in a circle known as a plasmid, and put inside a bacterium like E. coli.

In addition to the gene you want, the plasmid also has genes for antibiotic resistance. The team uses antibiotics to check and make sure their genes are working properly. If they aren’t, the bacteria won’t be able to survive.

Next, plasmids are removed from the surviving E. coli. The circle is broken before it is stuck into an algae cell. The team uses heat to put the plasmids in the E. coli, but they need something a little stronger to get the genes into the algae.

“We electrocute the algae,” Oram said on their refined methods of geting the DNA into the cell.  “It’s called electroporation.”

Theoretically they – or anyone – could make the algae do a number of other things. “We’re playing with the Legos of life,” Oram said.

The flexibility in the field of synthetic biology means the Concordia team’s project will be one of many extremely different projects at the iGEM competition. While 245 teams from Asia, Europe, South America, and North America will be at the competition, Concordia’s team will be competing primarily against themselves.

Projects at iGEM are judged on several criteria, including their outreach efforts. For this the team has made a video explaining the science behind their work as well as an upcoming game.

There is also a policy and practice portion of the competition which encourages teams to consider the way their innovation could affect their world. “We’ve decided to focus on the sustainability side,” Oram said.

Every team is eligible for medals, based on how their project fulfills certain standards. There is also a grand prize alongside divisional awards. While there are no cash prizes at iGEM, there are plenty of bragging rights.

Oram and Jaunky are confident that their project will do well. “We are well-versed in each of them and have a very well-rounded project,” Oram said. “We’re definitely going to go with our heads held up high,” Jaunky said.

They’ve already had a chance to practice their presentation at a similar competition this year in Calgary. This September the team showed their research at the Alberta Genetically Engineered Machine competition. “It was a great opportunity to show what you’re doing, instead of just talking about it in a lab meeting,” Oram said.

People from all disciplines are welcome on iGEM teams. “A lot of our team come from diverse backgrounds, even before coming to Concordia,” said Oram, who in addition to biology has a degree in international business from Memorial University and worked in investment banking before coming to Concordia. Finances are also diverse. The team was initially funded by Concordia’s biology and computer science and engineering faculties. As the project got underway, external companies contributed software and materials.

After the competition the team’s efforts will be available to the world, and even if Concordia’s iGEM team doesn’t continue with the project their achievements will be open source through iGEM’s BioBricks database registry.

Recruitment for next year’s iGEM team will start in November.

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