Take an industrial byproduct, treat it with the E. coli bacteria, and create a usable fragrance product for use in pharmaceuticals and other applications.
That genetic engineering concept was golden for a team of UT students who recently participated in the annual iGem Competition Giant Jamboree in Boston.
The UT students, from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, received a gold medal designation in the competition sponsored by the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGem) Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the field through education, competition, and collaboration. The iGem Competition is a premier international competition for undergraduate students in the field of synthetic biology.
Multidisciplinary teams like UT’s worked all summer to build genetically engineered systems using standard biological parts called BioBricks. The teams work inside and outside their labs, collaborating with other teams and participating in outreach events in their communities.
The UT iGem team’s project was Engineering Bacteria to Make Natural Scents from Chemical Wastes.
The team used engineered E. coli to convert toxic crude oil processing byproducts such as benzene, toluene, and xylene isomers into safer and industrially useful aromatic aldehydes—compounds used in flavors, fragrances, and other products. The process is renewable, environmentally friendly, and high yield. It is also economically advantageous because it converts waste materials into usable products.
The experimental process worked in most instances, and the students concluded that it could have real-world application in the bioremediation of gasoline. Team member Taylor Weiskettle, a senior in chemical and biomolecular engineering, said the team plans to work on expanding the process for next year’s competition.
“To see our project recognized as one with gold standards was thrilling, especially since we are a young iGem team,” said Weiskettle. “To reach gold you have to complete an extensive list of requirements in outreach, real-world applications, and results. Even if you think you have reached gold the judges can dispute your work, so we were worried right up to the end.”
Cong Trinh, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and faculty principal investigator on the project, said the competition provided multiple avenues for student learning.
“iGem helps students not only with the opportunity to conduct research but also to learn about engagement and outreach to the public,” he said. “The students involved with the project were exposed to a multitude of research disciplines and possibilities, and this recognition for their project is excellent exposure for our university.”
Donovan Layton, David Garcia, and Jong-Won Lee serve as graduate advisors for the team. Undergraduate students on the 2016 team were Amany Alshibli, Marti Bell, Evan Boone, Trey Foshee, Katherine Krouse, Matthew Kubis, Neel Patel, Taylor Weiskettle, and Brandon Wilbanks.