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Could this prize-winning student project be the next big thing in biofuels?

A Concordia team takes silver at the “synthetic biology event of the year,” the iGEM Giant Jamboree 2014
November 12, 2014
By Sara DuBreuil

An “amazing experience”: 11 of Concordia’s iGEM team members at the international competition in Boston, MA. An “amazing experience”: 11 of Concordia’s iGEM team members at the international competition in Boston, MA. | Photo courtesy of the iGEM team

A group of Concordia science undergrads brought home silver after an impressive showing at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Giant Jamboree 2014.

From October 30 to November 3, more than 2,500 students from 245 universities in 32 countries travelled to Boston, Massachusetts, to participate in the self-described “synthetic biology event of the year.”

At iGEM’s Giant Jamboree, they built biological systems and operated them in living cells. Each team then presented a poster illustrating their project, to prove to the Jamboree judges that the DNA parts and constructs functioned as intended. 

Team Concordia’s iGEM team began their research in May and worked throughout the summer. Their project, “Clean Green Lipid Machines,” focused on using microalgae as a potential source of biofuel. Because microalgae naturally produce lipids and are environmentally friendly, they could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a healthier earth.

Dave Oram, a biology student and Concordia iGEM member, says that his team initially had little working knowledge of microalgae — and it was a fun learning process.

“There was a lot of trial and error at the beginning and a lot of troubleshooting, but in the end, you get the techniques down,” he said. 

Nawwaf Kharma, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, supported Concordia’s iGEM team. The students were, he found, more than up to the challenge.

“iGEM teams learn stuff that is virtually impossible to learn within the confines of a university campus,” Kharma said.

“How to form and manage a team autonomously, how to carry out a project from conception to design to fabrication and presentation, the potential future research and commercial applications of research, and the need to compete across multiple dimensions… And they are learning all of this while actually having a good time, and without the limited and stressful conditions of paper-based exams.”

This year’s 200-plus iGEM Giant Jamboree teams were divided into different tracks according to subject. Concordia contended with 27 other groups, including such prestigious universities as Duke, Harvard and Edinburgh.

As Team Concordia member Elena Boueiri noted, “It was an amazing experience to see students from all over with so much passion for science.”

“You want to bring your best to any competition, whether it’s sporting or academic. It’s exciting to show how Concordia can compete at that level,” Oram said.

But iGEM is more than a competition — it’s also about open source sharing and the spirit pf the synthetic biology community.

Over four days, the teams learned about each other’s projects, and because each team was required to create a wiki website, the sharing of ideas and information will continue beyond the competition itself.

With their success at the 2014 competition, Concordia’s iGEM team is already looking ahead and recruiting new members. Next year’s team has the opportunity to build on the momentum of the current project, or to start from scratch.

Either way, both Oram and Boueiri affirmed that they’re excited to spread the word. 

“At iGEM, you get to put theories into practice, and through the team, you meet amazing people, graduate students and professors,” said Boueiri.

Oram agrees. “We know how great of an opportunity it was for us, and we want a whole new group of students get that chance as well.”

Learn more about Concordia’s iGEM project

Concordia’s iGEM 2014 team members

Amit Malhotra (B.Sc. Computer Science, B.Sc. Microbiology and Immunology)
David Oram (B.Sc. Biology)
Dilan B. Jaunky (B.Sc. Cell and Molecular Biology)
Elena Boueiri (B.Sc. Cell and Molecular Biology)
Hessam Kareimian Rad (B.Sc. Computer Science, B.Sc. Specialization in Biology)
Lisa Walker (B.Sc. Cell and Molecular Biology)
Marta Bakinowska (B.Sc. Cell and Molecular Biology)
Melissa Gurnagul (B.Sc. Cell and Molecular Biology)
Nicole Cappadocia-Assaly (B.Eng. Computer Engineering 
B.Sc. Biochemistry)
Valerie Hayot-Sasson (B.Sc. Computer Science - Computer Systems, B.Sc. Environmental Biology)
Victor Yuan (B.Sc. Cell and Molecular Biology)

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