Feb. 17, 2009

New student team aims to create biomachines that destroy pollutants, cancer cells

Microscopic, living machines that sense toxins in the air or deliver drugs in the body -- the stuff of science fiction? A new Cornell student project team is working to make such things the stuff of reality.

The Cornell International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) team, formed this year, uses biological, not mechanical, components to make machines. Their goal is to enter the annual competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that convenes institutions from all over the world to design, create and demonstrate such machines.

This field is called synthetic biology, a discipline so new that many large research institutions don't offer specific programs to study it.

Reminiscent of when "nanotechnology" was barely a household term, synthetic biology is the design and engineering of complex biological systems that don't occur naturally, using DNA or other biological materials as "biobricks." Synthetic biologists bioengineer microorganisms that can perform such tasks as producing pharmaceuticals, detecting toxins, breaking down pollutants or repairing defective genes.

"A lot of students were looking for a project team in the bio-related disciplines, which didn't exist at Cornell," said Naweed Paya '09, who co-founded the team this past fall with Koonal Bharadwaj '09. Majors represented on the team include not only biological engineering and biology, but also chemical engineering, electrical engineering and materials science.

The team of nine students is brainstorming ideas for their entry into MIT's sixth iGEM competition, to be held in November. They plan to have their project implemented and ready for experimentation by the summer, they said. The team attended the November 2008 competition, which featured more than 80 teams, to observe the other schools and collect ideas.

Among other possibilities, the students are looking into using cells called magnetotactic bacteria for heavy-metal decontamination of water. Toxic metals would be attracted to the bacteria, and the bacteria would then be removed with a magnet.

Other ideas include using bacteria as an anti-tumor agent or to insert antioxidants found in berries or spinach into such food-producing cells as yeast or bacterial cells that produce cheese.

The students, whose faculty advisers are Carl Batt, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Food Science, and Maki Inada, senior research associate in molecular biology and genetics, are researching whether any of their ideas have been tried before. They spend Sunday afternoons presenting their findings to each other.

Meanwhile, the search is on for team funding. While they've received a small grant from the College of Engineering, the students are looking for alumni, companies or other donors who can support them longer term.

"It's kind of like we're reinventing the wheel," said Alyssa Henning '11, who added that what drew her to iGEM was the opportunity to explore uncharted territory. "What we are doing in any of these projects really hasn't been done before."