Spring Workshop

Every year, the Albertan iGEM teams from Lethbridge, Edmonton, and Calgary converge for several conferences culminating in a friendly competition called aGEM. This weekend, we had the first conference, the spring workshop, and got to meet the teams from Lethbridge and Edmonton. We heard about their projects, the challenges they faced, and later met with several speakers, shown below, to discuss the personal, technical, and communication challenges ahead. We also took a tour of Peter Facchini's lab, where we learnt a lot about how metabolomics is researched and got to see the insides of a mass spectrometer.

Lethbridge's Project

Last year, Lethbridge designed a strain of E. coli to degrade catechol, a pollutant in tailings ponds. Though successful, the strain was not very efficient. This year's project is to optimize it; a major focus is on the development of micro-compartments to target enzymes to specific locations inside the cell. Their preliminary results suggest they can contain up to 5 proteins at once.

Alberta's Project

The University of Alberta's team wants to modify Neurospora crassa to break down common industrial waste products such as saw-dust into usable biodiesel. The key feature of the fungus is that it grows well on cellulose; Alberta's delegate, Rae, named four key goals in their project.
  • Find the ideal growth conditions for the mold in environments consisting of industrial waste products, such as wheatstraw, sawdust, etc.
  • Modify genes to "jack up" fatty acid production.
  • Synthesize biodiesel efficiently using the fatty acids produced by the fungus.
  • Integrate the fungus into a self-contained bio-reactor for industrial and home use.

The team anticipates the major challenge will be working with the genome of the fungus. The fungus' unusual genome makes it difficult to transform, and over 70 proteins are involved in growing on cellulose, making the insertion and extraction of genes a highly elaborate task.

Tour of Dr. Peter Facchini's Lab

There were several sections to Peter's lab, and we started off in the main research area, shown below. Here we learned about degradation pathways in plants and how Dr. Facchini was elucidating their genetic origins. We also got to see a mass-spectronomer and the grad student opened it up to explain exactly how it worked for us. Lastly, we went to the greenhouse where Dr. Facchini grows the poppies he uses in his research. This is the only place that is allowed to grow opium poppies legally in Canada and they are used exclusively for research. The tour guide showed our team how to harvest the opium poppies and explained how the process differs in different regions around the world. After this we regrouped with the other teams for the guest speakers.

The Guest Speakers

We had five guest speakers: Samantha Sutton, Michael Mader, Peter Facchini, Lori Sheremeta, and Anne-Marie Downey. The first four guest speakers took preliminary questions as a panel, and then separately led a workshop for each team. Michael and Lori talked about the legal, ethical, and political implications of our project, and Peter did the technical parts; Samantha gave us some guidance in becoming a stronger team, working well together, and communicating important details. Lastly, we spent an entire day in Ann's public speaking workshop, where we attempted to improve our public speaking skills. Two members, Robert and Stephen, were recorded on video while presenting a summary of our project.