The Science of Halloween. Or, how E. coli can be your friend.

IgemJuanValdezSUN_6474Halloween in Boston, and the annual iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines Giant Jamboree. One weekend, two parties, and the line between the two was, uh, blurred. Where else could you find the world’s most promising young scientific minds presenting cutting-edge scientific research dressed as a unicorn, Count Dracula, a banana, or Columbian coffee legend *Juan Valdez?

The mood was light but the work was serious. The Jamboree is where thousands of student researchers from all over the world come to report on a year’s worth of synthetic biology lab experiments. Synthetic biology is a new field of science; so new it hasn’t yet been smothered by large organizations overwhelmed with regulations, lawyers and red tape. It’s still the realm of idealistic young people trying to make life better for all of us. They’re old enough to do great work but young enough not to take themselves too seriously.

Many of the projects are targeted toward specific affected segments of medical care, the economy, or the environment and the inevitable ties among the three.
IgemSUN_6142The Missouri Miners presented on using cyanothese to “fix” nitric oxide emissions from coal flues. Nitrogen fixation converts nitrogen compounds into ammonia fertilizer to remedy the negative effects of coal, a common source of industrial energy. Hannah Frye, Kira Buckowing and Kelsey Crossen’s team presentation even made note of the recent decommissioning of S&T’s coal-fired power plant. S&T students Hannah Kim, Jordan Sanders, Aaron Jankelow, Levi Palmer, Keith Loveless, helped with the Miners’ presentation and poster sessions, while team advisor Dr. Dave Westenberg kept a low profile over his charges.

A British university is identifying enzymes that degrade TNT wastes from 20th century munition plants into harmless products.

Another team wants to develop a biological system marker that indicates the presence of peanut allergens in food products.

Still another is using genetically-modified E. coli to break down waste cooking oil into a marketable terpanoid.

One school came to Beantown to explain how they want to modify an organism to heal post-stroke or traumatic brain injury glial scars.
hannhSUN_6444There’s an overall winner and awards are earned for best human practices, best poster, and the like. The main focus on the judging is on individual team performance, so everyone’s work earns praise, not just the “winner.” Most of the fun was saved for the chaotic poster “show.” Humorous titles or double entendres were found everywhere, and a few teams matched their uniforms and display art to complete the visual “package.”

S.O.S: Save Our Shells – Biological sensors that alert Chesapeake Bay oystermen to the presence of pathogens encroaching on fragile oyster beds.

Star (Trek) Peptides, nanomaterials that may develop into cancer treatment and the next generation (pun intended) antibiotics.

Sherlock Coli vs Professor Vibrio Moriarty Cholerae (cholera)

The Lung Ranger: Biological signaling molecules that detect problems for Cystic Fibrosis patients. Identify biological signaling molecules and produce a device that gives home-health nurses fast test results so CF treatment can begin quickly and recovery times cut in half, at considerable savings in health care costs.

Calgary touted a “B.s.” (bacillus subtilis) detector; we didn’t get the details but it could sure make someone a ton of money.

One of the German universities gave an incredible presentation about their work in developing an enzyme that eliminates methane “discharges” from cattle. Think of the value to humanity if it were to work on politicians……………..

*Juan Valdez? His crew, complete with an inflatable burro, has been working hard on a solution for diseases that attack the South American coffee industry. As go coffee plantations, so goes the early-morning productivity of the average North American office worker.