UCLA iGEM team works to create engineered silk from bacteria

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Biochemistry undergraduates are in the team which will enter their project in the 2015 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. 

Daniel Cancilla, Jessica Huang, Vinson Lam, Julian Lutze, and Phillip Nguyen are part of the 18 member UCLA iGEM team made up of undergraduate students with majors across the physical, life, and engineering sciences who are working on a project to design and engineer synthetic silks with enhanced properties and new functions.  

Beyond the team’s primary goal of competing in iGEM, they are also developing a new model of science education — a program in which students brainstorm, carry out, and troubleshoot a novel project from beginning to end. 

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(L to R) UCLA iGEM Biochemistry team members: undergraduates Daniel Cancilla, Jessica Huang, Vinson Lam, Julian Lutze and Phillip Nguyen; iGEM advisor Kosuri lab member David Yao; faculty advisor Professor Sri Kosuri. 

UCLA Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Sri Kosuri serves as the advisor for the group. “I think iGEM is one of the premiere educational opportunities for synthetic biology research.” Prof. Kosuri said. “The students pick and develop their own ideas, and are responsible for all aspects of execution. This year’s team is really special, focusing on a tough project working on making synthetic protein fibers based on silks. It’s been such a pleasure working with them and seeing them solving lots of really tough problems along the way.  I’m very excited to see what the rest of the summer might bring.” Kosuri lab member and UCLA Neuroscience graduate David Yao started the team and is also acting as an advisor. “I’ve always wanted a place where students from diverse scientific backgrounds could take ‘What if?’ questions one step further by asking, “How?” David said. “The iGEM competition was the perfect platform for empowering students to democratize and create their own education — gaining experience in conducting research, leading the business and administrative sides of running a lab, and communicating the science to various audiences. With an amazing team of students who are constantly experimenting on the program itself, and the support of enthusiastic faculty, we’ve created an environment where students can challenge themselves, the science, and traditional models of science education.” Each year the iGEM competition draws over 200 university teams from all over the world, making it the world’s premier undergraduate synthetic biology conference. This competition encourages teams to creatively challenge major scientific problems, utilizing and contributing to the largest, open-source collection of genetic parts.
Unmodified (left) and enhanced (right) silk imaged under a blue light box. Raw silk was first dissolved, purified, then “spun” by extruding through a syringe to form unmodified silk. Genetically modified silk fused to a green fluorescent protein was co-spun with processed raw silk to create enhanced fluorescent silk.  UCLA iGEM team photo
This year the UCLA iGEM team is working on altering and producing synthetic silks in bacteria. Silk is a material that nature has already designed to be incredibly strong and elastic. The team aims to take it a step further using synthetic biology techniques, to create silks with enhanced properties and new functions. Their goal is to create customizable fibers such as silk threads that can carry therapeutic molecules and serve as enhanced sutures. On the flashier side, they are also hoping to create glowing silk threads as a high end fashion material. With a material as versatile as silk, the potential applications are endless.
The other UCLA iGEM team members are Fasih Ahsan (Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics (MIMG) & Bioinformatics),  Carter Allen (MIMG), Michael Cheng (Bioengineering), Olivia Cheng (MIMG), Nithin Dharmaraj  (Bioengineering), Tristan Joseph (MIMG), Jared Lamar (Physics), Tyler Lee (Bioengineering), Aalhad Patankar (Bioengineering),  Megan Satyadi (MIMG), Hayden Speck (Biology & History), and Anuved Verma (Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology). The UCLA iGEM team recently launched a UCLA SPARK crowdfunding campaign with the goal of raising $5,000 to purchase supplies needed to conduct their research and to pay for the costs of the competition (the registration fee alone for the conference is $1,000 per person). To learn more about the team and their research visit their homepage.