Singing bacteria—a veritable Menudo made up of microorganisms—was the latest synthetic biology brainchild of USC’s International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) team.
Advised by the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology assistant professor Sean Curran and grad student Percy Genyk, the team consisted of USC undergrads Megan Bernstein, Rachel Kohan, Ellen Park, Stephan Genyk, Eric Siryj, Luke Quinto and Rebecca Gao.
“From beginning to end, the team was committed—staying past midnight was very common,” said member Stephan Genyk. “I am proud of the many hours and long nights we put into this project, and that we were able to create an intricate system that can be used in many other fields of science.”
Building on last year’s initial success, where the USC iGEM team was able to instigate a “Trojan horse” self-destruction mechanism in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, this year’s iGEM team won a gold medal at the iGEM Regional Jamboree: Americas West in Palo Alto, CA for their project, “E. musici.”
“It is great to see that in the few short years since it was founded, the USC iGEM team won the gold medal,” said Yannis Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “This success demonstrates the caliber of our undergraduate students in biochemical engineering and the leadership of its faculty advisor Sean Curran.”
Working with the infamous E. coli, the team manipulated the genetic factors responsible for the movement of the bacteria’s whip-like flagella. By controlling the rotation and frequency of the flagella under a variety of conditions, including pH, temperature and salt/nitrate concentration, the team were able to translate these specific changes into an audible range.
In effect: for the first time in history, bacteria were able to “talk” directly to scientists, providing feedback about their health and hunger levels, which could prove invaluable in any laboratory setting.
“The creativity, dedication and talent on display with this team is awe-inspiring,” said Pinchas Cohen, dean of the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “Seeing rising young USC scientists with such passion and innovation is a testament to the strength of the university and the future of the field.”
On a more lighthearted level, the team’s project also translated into an ability to potentially create an E. coli keyboard, with each note represented by a plate of bacteria producing a specific frequency.
While the prospect of bacteria Bieber covers may simultaneously charm and terrify, the team prided itself on spanning the divide between the arts and science while increasing public awareness of the limitless potential of bioengineering. In fact, they also produced an outreach video and social media initiative exploring people’s misconceptions of synthetic biology while explaining some of its basic concepts and applications.
“iGEM presents the perfect opportunity to combine biology, engineering, computer science, ethics and public relations in the cutting edge field of synthetic biology,” said Rebecca Gao. “We all wanted to pull something with the ‘wow,’ double-take factor and it was amazing to see our crazy, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if?’ questions actually manifest themselves.”
“Being a part of the iGEM team this year was one of my most rewarding experiences here at USC. I got to learn hands-on bench science and gain research experience,” said Megan Bernstein. “Sometimes the best way to really learn is to do something, and participating in an iGEM project is an amazing example of that.”
“This type of interdisciplinary, discovery-based learning is fundamental to training our undergraduates to be leaders in the fields of tomorrow,” said Steve Kay, dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “The USC Dornsife community is incredibly proud of this trailblazing team of scholars.”
While the team’s praise from the students for advisors Curran and Percy Genyk was universal, the feeling was definitely mutual.
“This year’s team was exceptionally enthusiastic and creative—no one had made E. coli sing before and it seemed impossible, so what better challenge?” said Curran, who also holds joint appointments in both USC Dornsife and the Keck School. “iGEM is a unique opportunity for undergrads to work on a project from development to presentation on a national stage, and I am so proud. I enjoyed working with this team so much and I can’t wait to see what they accomplish in the future!”
For more information on the team, their project and their videos, visit http://2012.igem.orgTeam:USC.