Engineering Biological Answers

The University of Washington, one of OSLI’s eight sponsored university teams from around the world, won the grand prize in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) 2011 iGEM competition. The competition was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts from November 5-7, 2011.

iGEM is the world’s foremost synthetic biology competition, where students are tasked with altering biological parts and systems to address real-world challenges. The challenges are categorized into the areas of health & medicine, manufacturing, IT, energy and the environment. OSLI used an RFP process to select teams for the competition. This model of sponsoring teams, and the success of these teams, has led other organizations such as NASA to follow suit. OSLI’s teams are focused on developing solutions to challenges faced by the oil sands, such as engineering bacteria to detect bitumen in situ, generate hydrogen or breakdown chemical compounds in tailing ponds.

This year, the iGEM competition was organized in a new way. Three regional competitions were first held in Asia, Europe and North America. With over 160 universities and more than 2000 people competing in the regionals, OSLI’s teams came out on top, with the University of Debrecen, University of Lethbridge, Queens University, University of Washington, University of Calgary and the University of Mexico winning gold in their respective regional categories, followed by the University of Alberta winning bronze.

Four of OSLI’s teams (University of Calgary, University of Lethbridge, Queens University and University of Washington) moved forward to the finals, where the University of Calgary won first place in the Environment category, and the University of Washington tied for first place with Yale in the Energy or Food category, as well as placing first overall, winning the first ever iGEM global grand prize.

The University of Washington’s team created a biofuel made out of glucose with a composition identical to that of diesel. By matching the composition of diesel, the biofuel would allow for the production of a fuel that is both renewable and full compatible with current engines and infrastrucure, and could be used as a diluent in the oil sands. The University of Calgary’s project involved building a working biosensor to detect naphthenic acids. This can be used directly on reclamation sites for testing purposes without having to send samples to a lab to be tested.

For more information on all the iGEM competition teams, check out their wikis posted on our New Ideas website.