iGEM Team to Preview CRISPR Project Oct. 11 at Gateway

The team will later join students from around the world to participate in the iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston
October 10, 2016

Biology and math geeks unite! The hottest thing in gene editing today is based on palindromes in DNA. How cool is that?

It’s called CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and was discovered in bacterial DNA. It’s a defense system bacteria use to fight off invading viruses. Now, CRISPR tools give researchers the ability to edit just about any gene, in any cell they target. CRISPR technology is at the heart of this year’s iGEM Team project at WPI and team members will be presenting a preview of their work tomorrow (Oct. 11, at 4:15 p.m.) in the large seminar room on the first floor of the Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center at Gateway Park (60 Prescott St.).

"This has been a technically challenging project,” says Natalie Farny, PhD., assistant teaching professor of biology and biotechnology, lead advisor of the team. “The students have done amazing work to troubleshoot and really get an understanding of how this technology works and how challenging real research can be. So we’re looking forward to sharing our progress with the WPI community.”

iGEM is the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition— a global synthetic biology program that challenges students to create biological tools that work within living cells to produce a desired product or process. On this year’s WPI team are biology & biotechnology majors Allison Van Fechtmann ’17, Frederick Gergits ’17, Sarah Martin ’18, Jingyi Wu,’18 and two students double-majoring in biology & biotechnology and chemistry & biochemistry,  Matthew Googins ’17 and Virginia Massa ’18.

iGEM projects cover a wide range of applications in food, nutrition, health, and medicine to environmental, energy, manufacturing, and information processing technologies. Each team starts with a standard tool kit of more than 1,000 biological parts that iGEM calls BioBricks; these are mostly sequences of DNA known to do specific things in cells. Teams begin with the same kit, but are encouraged to innovate and design new biological parts as their projects progress.

The WPI iGEM team organized in D term last spring, worked all through the summer and into A term this fall. Their goal is to use CRISPR technologies to build a molecular system for changing the function of specific genes by editing the messages they send to produce proteins. By targeting the messages instead of the genes themselves, the team hopes to build a reversible system, almost like a dimmer switch, that could be used to modulate gene activity without disrupting DNA. At the end of October they will join thousands of students from around the world to participate in the iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston.

“We hope to get more students exposed to this synthetic biology program, and the really amazing research that can be done at the undergraduate level through iGEM and across our department,” says Joseph “Duff” Duffy, associate professor and department head of biology and biotechnology, principal sponsor, and co-advisor of the team. 

- By Michael Cohen