Students Seek Early Detection of Devastating Goat Virus

As their entry in a prestigious synthetic biology competition, the WPI undergraduates will pursue a simple test that can help farmers in the developing world safeguard their herds
June 12, 2014

If a virus has got your goat, the sooner you know, the better. Especially if it's the Caprine Arthritis-Encephalitis Virus (CAEV), which can spread undetected through a herd, reducing the milk production and lifespan of one of the most important farm animals in the developing world.

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Creating a simple, inexpensive way for farmers to test their goats (or sheep, which are also susceptible) for CAEV is the goal of the first team of undergraduates from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) to enter the undergraduate International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. iGEM is a global synthetic biology program that challenges students to create biological machines that work within living cells to produce a desired product or process.

CAEV is slow to cause visible symptoms, so it can hit many animals before a farmer knows the herd is infected. Animals sick from CAEV may develop severe joint pain that limits mobility, a potentially fatal pneumonia, or a deadly swelling of the brain. There is no cure or vaccine, so animals suspected of having CAEV are either isolated or destroyed. The virus can be transmitted through saliva, nasal discharge, and other excretions, and is often passed from mother to kid during nursing. Early detection would allow farmers to isolate infected animals before symptoms develop, thereby limiting the impact on their herds and their livelihood.

"This prestigious competition offers our students a wonderful opportunity to apply their understanding of biology and the tools of biotechnology to try to solve important problems," said Joseph Duffy, PhD, associate professor and head of WPI's Department of Biology and Biotechnology, co-advisor of the iGEM team.

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This year 245 teams from around the world are competing in iGEM, including 82 teams from Asia, 67 from Europe, 14 from Latin America, and 82 from North America. Team projects cover a wide range of applications in food, nutrition, health, and medicine to environmental, energy, manufacturing, and information processing technologies. After working full-time all summer at their respective schools, the student teams will gather in the fall in Boston for the iGEM Giant Jamboree, where they will present their projects to panels of judges and compete for awards.

Teams start 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. The tool kit is drawn from iGEM’s Registry of Standard Biological Parts, which is like a hardware store for biotechnology product development. Teams begin with the same kit, but are encouraged to innovate and design new biological parts as their projects progress. Any new, functional BioBricks developed during the competition become part of the shared registry available for other teams to use.

"The concept is open-development, sharing information and ideas, so that all teams can benefit from the experiences of each other," said Natalie Farny, PhD, assistant teaching professor of biology and biotechnology, the lead advisor for the iGEM team.

The WPI team members are Chloe LaJeunesse '17 of Seal Beach, Calif., Corbyn Lamy '15 of Wolfeboro, N.H., and Massachusetts residents Kayla DeSanty '16 of Holden, Michael Giroux '16 of Hubbardston, Shawna Henry '15 of Lynn, and Alex Turland '15 of North Reading. The team's initial project is to create a biological system within the bacterium E. coli that will function as a rapid blood test for CAEV.

"We wanted to get the team started with a specific project, and given the goat's importance in the developing world we saw this as a good fit," Farny said. “But we also want the students to help shape the team's work, so they are now looking to expand the scope and target a human virus that could be tested with the same technology."

The WPI team held its first meeting on June 2 and will continue to work through the summer in laboratories at the Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center at Gateway Park. Like all iGEM teams, they will post regular updates on their project at the team's wiki, which is accessible at