Story Highlights
  • Competing for the first time, the BYU team beat schools such as Harvard and Duke
  • They advanced to the world finals at MIT to compete against teams from Europe and Asia
  • Their project is aimed at ultimately modifiying E. coli to play a role in detecting colon cancer. 

A team of BYU students recently received a top award for colleges from the Americas for their research on a possible role for E. coli in cancer detection. They competed in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Regional Jamboree sponsored by MIT, and the  gold they received qualifies them to advance to the iGEM World Championship Jamboree, which will be held this weekend in Cambridge, Mass.

Teams participating in iGEM are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer. Then they use those and new parts that they design themselves to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.

After having already bested teams from the likes of Harvard and Duke, the BYU rookies now advance to take on the winning teams from Europe, Asia, and their top counterparts from the Americas.

The ultimate goal of the project is to engineer E. coli to help detect colon cancer. That result is a long way off, but the team is pleased with the progress they’ve made so far. A big milestone for them was fine-tuning a temperature sensor to be able to make more precise measurements. Their engineered bacteria turn blue in response to temperature shifts.

The BYU team was initiated by Matt Biggs, a senior studying bioinformatics.

“Last summer I ran across a reference to iGEM and it sounded like the coolest thing I could possibly do with my summer, Biggs said. “I approached different professors and they helped get the ball rolling.”

The first-year team was mentored by Julianne Grose, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular biology, who will join them at the competition. David Kooyman, associate professor of physiology and developmental biology, also mentored the team and accompanied them to the regionals.

“I think iGEM is so valuable because it is student driven,” Grose said. “The students come up with the idea for what they’re going to be doing. It’s their idea, they have ownership, they have investment and they have a framework to apply the knowledge they gain in class.”

The team, comprised of nine students from seven different majors, spent many hours over the summer with no guarantee of success in their experiments.

“When we started it we just weren’t sure that we would be able to produce a part that was vital to the project,” Grose said. “But the students worked hard and put in the time, and it worked.”

Julie Roberts, a senior studying genetics and biotechnology, changed her career path after getting involved in iGEM.

“Participating in this competition has changed the trajectory of my life,” Roberts said. “Designing an experiment, coming up with an experimental plan, the lab work itself, the process has given me the whole foundation of lab experience.”

Additional members of the team are Devin Sabin, a senior studying microbiology; Mackay Merrill, a senior studying neuroscience; Addison Alley, a senior studying microbiology; Lawrence Williams, a junior studying computer science; Mark Sabin, a senior studying physiology and developmental biology; Chet Chamberlain, a senior studying genetics and biotechnology; and Julius Adebayo, a senior studying mechanical engineering.

Writer: Matt Hopkins