iGEM, booze sensors and epidemic models

For most of the day today, the iGEM teams are breaking up into groups in which students present their projects. The range of projects is pretty dizzying. They are loosely divided into five tracks - energy, information processing, basic foundational projects, health and environment. I started out with a team called the Missouri Miners, from the University of Missouri, Rolla, who showed off two projects they had attempted - a biological timer, which fluoresces for a set amount of time when a cel

Alla Katsnelson
Nov 2, 2007
For most of the day today, the iGEM teams are breaking up into groups in which students present their projects. The range of projects is pretty dizzying. They are loosely divided into five tracks - energy, information processing, basic foundational projects, health and environment. I started out with a team called the Missouri Miners, from the University of Missouri, Rolla, who showed off two projects they had attempted - a biological timer, which fluoresces for a set amount of time when a cell encounters a sugar molecule, and a biological breathalyzer test, which senses ethanol and methanol. Both projects are still ongoing - many groups don't finish, Peter Carr, the judge at the panel and an MIT Media Lab researcher , told me, "and there?s no shame in that." Especially for campuses entering teams for the first time, getting everything planned and ready for the summer (according to the rules,...
ng. They are loosely divided into five tracks - energy, information processing, basic foundational projects, health and environment. I started out with a team called the Missouri Miners, from the University of Missouri, Rolla, who showed off two projects they had attempted - a biological timer, which fluoresces for a set amount of time when a cell encounters a sugar molecule, and a biological breathalyzer test, which senses ethanol and methanol. Both projects are still ongoing - many groups don't finish, Peter Carr, the judge at the panel and an MIT Media Lab researcher , told me, "and there?s no shame in that." Especially for campuses entering teams for the first time, getting everything planned and ready for the summer (according to the rules, the work must be done between May and October). In the question session, an audience member asked whether their devices had any practical applications. Maybe a battery-free test for tipple level will find a place on the shelves of CVS, or maybe it won't, and while applicability is good, Carr said, projects that demonstrate some kind of basic principles and put them together in a neat way are just as good. (One of last year's winners made E coli that smelled of peppermint when it was growing, and banana when the growing had ceased.) Next, in the health track - the Virginia Tech team showed their results after a summer getting E coli to model an epidemic. The benefits, they said, was that you can use actual experimental data, a true biological model, rather than data from past epidemics, which may be incomplete or not relevant to a specific situation. The idea was to use a phage that can either kill the cell (induce lysis) or lie dormant (be lysogenic) - they used a promoter that fluoresced red or green depending on which of the two occurred. (The promoter is one of the three parts their group will now add to the Registry, one of the key elements of the contest.) Then, to model epidemic spread between populations, they transferred "infected" liquid between wells in a 96-well plate, using airport data to mimic travel between cities.

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