iGEM at Colegio Roosevelt, The American School of Lima
Is it possible for students to genetically modify bacteria to turn red? How about modifying bacteria to extract mercury from the environment? Does it sound like science fiction to you? As George Church, founding father of synthetic biology, claims, “It is only science fiction until you remove the fiction” (Mezrich 2017). Indeed, the FDR iGEM (international genetically engineered) team can do this! The iGEM team at FDR is the only South American high school team to be a member of iGEM. In fact, at the 2018 international competition, FDR was the only high school team from the entire Southern Hemisphere to compete! Last October in Boston, MA (USA), students presented their research in a 20-minute oral presentation, as well as poster format. Furthermore, they comfortably rubbed shoulders and discussed scientific progress with college students, graduate students, and Ph.D. researchers.
The team in Boston, just after their presentation
What are the additional benefits of having an iGEM team? Our students have learned the theory and practice of synthetic biology in seeking to solve a global problem through genetically engineering bacteria to perform a task of their wishes. They have collaborated with local companies and universities to solve their problems, and have reached out to the community by teaching STEM lessons to elementary students, creating infographics, and presenting seminars. All of their own initiative.
It all started with a visit to T.A.S.A., a local company that is the largest distributor of anchovy-based fishmeal in the world. There, the team discovered that the company regularly tests for 20+ pollutants in the fishmeal before distributing it throughout the world. If any pollutant is above acceptable standards, the fishmeal is diluted, still resulting in the contaminants being shipped out and being fed to fish or livestock in other parts of the world where it might ultimately end up on a dinner plate!
Learning about fishmeal production at TASA
The team set out to come up with a solution using synthetic biology to remove the neurotoxin mercury, one of the contaminants tested for, from the fishmeal before distribution. We didn’t have the expertise or lab equipment necessary to attack this problem, so we enlisted the help of Dr. Daniel Guerra from Cayetano University in Lima. He, along with his graduate student Keren Espinoza, opened up the lab to us in order to conduct our experiments. Keren taught students the fundamentals of synthetic biology and guided them through the process of learning the skills they needed to conduct the experiments. The students had many brainstorming sessions with Daniel and Keren as they began designing and engineering their construct that would make bacteria extract mercury from the environment. Cayetano University is in the process of adding a synthetic biology major to their offerings and we were the guinea pigs in this process. They also received iGEM DNA from us that will help them with this start-up. So, it was a win-win for everyone.
Student working in the lab at Cayetano
To be a competitive iGEM team, students must make a connection between synthetic biology and the real world. Thus, our team formed a “Hardware” group in which they began the design process for a container in which the reaction between the modified bacteria and the fishmeal will take place.
Additionally, it is a requirement to have a human practices component of your work. This involves reaching out to the community to educate the student, parent, and greater community about synthetic biology and STEM-related topics. Our students chose to collaborate with a club at our school that teaches English to the children of school staff on Saturday mornings. The iGEM team created and compiled inquiry-based science lessons that additionally exposed these young students to science and scientific terminology. They joined the Habla Roosevelt Club on Saturdays to deliver the lessons. They also integrated a Girls Can! program, in which they attend 5th-grade classes and specifically work with the girls to foster interest and confidence for girls in STEM-related fields. To disseminate information in a more modern way, they published an online FDR science journal where they educate the community about science, especially the area of synthetic biology. Furthermore, they presented a seminar to the teachers and parents at the school about synthetic biology, as well as their research. All of this, in addition to doing the lab work!
Students presenting to parents, teachers, and other high schools.
Finally, all teams must record their work and efforts on a team Wiki page that has a strict deadline on which all editing is cut-off. Here is our team Wiki from 2018.
As a result of all of their efforts, they were awarded the AASSA Global Citizen Award in March 2019. Also, after presenting T.A.S.A. with the work they’ve done, T.A.S.A. has agreed to provide a $2000 sponsorship for the team during the 2019 season.
iGEM is student-driven higher-level work. How can you foster this? Get help! Global problems aren’t solved by one person or even one group alone. Solving global issues requires multi-level collaboration. What better way to get students working and thinking like true collaborators and think-tank experts than by forging collaboration with colleagues at your school and local universities. Our team had support not only from me (IB Biology/ESS), but our IB Physics teacher, coding teacher, a visiting professor, and our IT department. Similarly, the work simply could not have been done without our collaboration with Cayetano University.
Read what students have to say about their iGEM experience:
“iGEM helped me realize how much I like synthetic biology and that I want to study it as a career…”
“I feel immense pride in being part of this club”
“…this team, or I should say ‘this family’….I always wanted an environment where we could learn synthetic biology, but I didn’t expect the amount of knowledge and lab experience we’ve all gained…I hope that everyone will get a chance to experience what iGEM brings to the community and I cannot wait for the next season to start with new people joining our family!”
“It’s a team of intrinsically motivated students. It’s a team that has learned to work together. It’s a team that is proud of the work they have done. That is truly special. Really I don’t think you’ll find that in the average classroom.”
“I joined iGEM and had no idea what to expect from it, but you gave me this feeling of confidence so I kept on attending sessions…and iGEM became one of the few places where I felt completely safe and identified.”
Read up on iGEM and consider the benefits and the possibility of starting your own team. It’s not for the faint-hearted! It requires a lot of work, but it is worth it!
Mezrich, B. (2017). Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures. Simon and Schuster.
Dr. Nina Markham is an IB Biology and ESS teacher at Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Lima. She earned her Chemistry degree at Brigham Young University, her Ph.D. in Immunology at the University of Utah, and her teaching credentials from St. Joseph University. Before Peru, her teaching career has kept her busy in international schools in China, the Netherlands, and Saudi Arabia. The 2018 season was her first year mentoring an iGEM team. If you have questions you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.