UC Davis Today: Today’s students are tomorrow’s inventors

Four male members of the iGEM team in lab coats, with one looking at a beaker of solution

Today’s students are tomorrow’s inventors

At UC Davis, undergraduates have rich opportunities to invent their own solutions to scientific challenges. 

For instance, students are engineering life through the emerging field of synthetic biology, a discipline that focuses on engineering life in an efficient, fast, automated manner. Students from all majors are encouraged to get involved, but especially those with experience in computer science, systems biology, molecular biology, cell biology and protein biochemistry.

The goal of synthetic biology is to take the cumulative knowledge of the biological world to solve practical problems ranging from people’s health to the environment. Projects include designing efficient, gluten-degrading enzymes that may eventually be used to treat humans with severe wheat allergies, creating bioelectric sensors for finding pollutants in water sources, and engineering organisms to remove toxic pollutants from oil sands and mine tailings. 

From a larger synthetic biology group, four students are chosen each year for the International Genetically Engineered Machine, or iGEM, competition. Mentored by Professors Marc Facciotti of Biomedical Engineering and Ilias Tagkopoulos of Computer Science and a group of graduate students, the iGEM team spends 60 hours a week or longer in the lab throughout the summer to take a biological kit of parts and build a system that works in living cells.

“It's up to each year's team to find its own inspiration and go after something that matters to them,” says Aaron Heuckroth, a fourth-year double major in classics and microbiology who secured a research internship in Boston this year thanks to his iGEM experiences.

In 2010, UC Davis students were asked to make a lawn of E. coli bacteria that organized themselves into colored stripes when stimulated with light. Team UC Davis was among about a third of the competing teams from around the world to be awarded a gold medal for their work.

This past year, the 2011 iGEM team developed a fast, accessible and inexpensive method for generating variants of existing biological parts. Scientists and engineers can use such methods to build complex genetic circuits inside living cells. And the team brought home a trophy for best entry in its track. 

In a related UC Davis research opportunity, undergraduates can sign up for a three-day summer Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy, July 11-13. Deadline for applications is June 8. 

(Aaron Heuckroth, a fourth-year double major in classics and microbiology from Menlo Park, looks for contaminants in the nutrient broth used for growing bacteria. The rest of the 2011 iGem team includes (from left): Nick Csicsery, a third-year student majoring in biological systems engineering from Elk Grove; Keegan Owsley, a fourth-year majoring in biomedical engineering from Santa Rosa; and Tim Fenton, a fourth-year majoring in cell biology from Fair Oaks. Karin Higgins/UC Davis photo)

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