Alberta Teams Off to Boston for iGEM 2019

Ah, iGEM season. My favourite time of year.

As I sit here in the airport waiting for my flight to board, I feel like I should take some time to share with you all what Alberta’s students have been up to this year.

As a refresher, iGEM is the world’s premier synthetic biology competition. Each year, over 350 teams from around the world will travel to Boston to present their projects and meet new friends and colleagues. It’s a huge Jamboree that spans five days.

Alberta’s teams have had a very strong and consistent presence at iGEM, having won numerous awards and accolades on the world stage for over a decade. These undergraduate and high school students spend a summer engineering bacteria to address complex world problems and present them to a panel of judges and peers in Boston each year.

Consistent support from local programs like MindFuel’s geekStarter gives these students an advantage over many other teams in Canada. The aGEM competition, in particular, gives these students an opportunity to learn from mentors in synthetic biology and do a dry run of their presentations before the big Jamboree. This kind of support is one of the reasons why Alberta can send so many teams to the competition each year. (It’s also why Alberta is the only province to have high school representation in all of Canada for the past six years.)

Alberta has four teams competing at iGEM 2019 and I’ll be excited to see their final results. Hopefully, this will make you all excited for them, too!

Alberta’s Other Oil Industry

Canola is one of Alberta’s leading crops. The canola industry contributes over $19 billion to the Canadian economy and helps support almost a quarter-million jobs. Farmers are motivated to ensure the quality of canola is as high as possible to produce the best quality oil for market.

If you’re city folk like me, you may not know about the Green Seed problem, which is actually quite serious in the canola industry. Canola naturally turns its brilliant golden colour as chlorophyll in the seeds degrades. When canola is exposed to poor growing conditions (such as frost or drought), the chlorophyll degradation pathway can stop. This means the seeds stay green.

Chlorophyll causes a lot of problems for farmers since it forces them to sell green seeds at a heavy discount. It also lowers the quality of the resulting oil, affecting things like taste and smoke point. Current methods use a lot of clay to filter out the chlorophyll, but you can lose up to 25% of the oil in the process. That’s a lot of money going down the drain.

The Calgary iGEM team wanted to help our local farmers by working on a full suite of solutions to address the Green Seed problem. They are working on a method to use proteins to remove chlorophyll from oil and potentially convert it into useful byproducts. They also designed a hardware system and algorithm that automatically scans and grades seeds based on their colour.

Bee Healthy

(I don’t have good bee puns.)

Building on the same inspiration from last year’s project, the University of Alberta iGEM team developed the Beetector, a diagnostic platform to detect the presence of dangerous Nosema ceranae, a fungus that infects and kills hives if it grows out of control.

Alberta is a surprisingly large producer of honey in Canada, and Nosema infections can be devastating to a beekeeper as it can cause entire colonies to collapse. Currently, beekeepers need to collect bees and ship them off to a central lab for analysis. But this takes weeks to get results back, and during that time an infected hive can be seriously jeopardized.

The UAlberta team is developing a paper-based system where farmers can collect bees, crush them (which is apparently standard procedure), and then dip the paper strip to detect the presence of Nosema on-site. This could be used in combination with their APIS project from last year, which aimed to treat Nosema once it infects a hive.

Insulin Without the Needle?

Most of us probably know someone who lives with Type I diabetes and needs to take insulin to regulate their blood sugar. And I think most of us would agree that although injections are necessary, they’re not exactly… fun.

Oral insulin would be ideal, where you could just pop a pill with every meal. But the problem with existing oral insulin methods is that insulin is a protein, and our stomachs are incredibly good at digesting proteins. How do you protect the insulin until it makes it to your intestines? And how do you get the intestines to absorb something as large as insulin?

The University of Lethbridge iGEM team is exploring ways to use microalgae to produce insulin and potentially use it as a vehicle to deliver it without using needles. Much of the work this summer was spent on the production step, as insulin production in microalgae is relatively new for iGEM. This raises an interesting conversation about democratizing medicine, considering all of the recent articles on the soaring cost of insulin.

Fighting Antibiotic Resistance with Early Detection

Antimicrobial resistance is a big challenge for hospitals and clinics. Current diagnostics take 1-3 days to return results, during which an infection can continue to spread. In the meantime, this means clinics needs to keep patients on broad-spectrum antibiotics, which can perpetuate the problem.

To address this problem, the Lethbridge High School iGEM team is developing a paper strip diagnostic that uses CRISPR-Cas13a and a bright yellow RNA aptamer called RNA Mango II. Normally this RNA shows up as a bright yellow colour, but if pathogenic bacteria are detected, it will trigger CRISPR-Cas13a to cut RNA around it, including RNA Mango. This means you should see the colour in the paper strip fade away.

It All Starts Soon…

The 2019 iGEM Giant Jamboree starts tomorrow! This is the chance for these teams to showcase everything they learned, so I hope that we as the Alberta community will cheer them on.

Best of luck to all the teams! I’m so excited to see how you all do.

Photo credit: MindFuel

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