Yale training gives students glimpse of life on Mars

What does the colonization of Mars, the global energy challenge, and the food crisis have in common? A team of Yale undergraduate students set to finding the answer at the 2016 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition, the premiere student competition in synthetic biology, an emerging field whose aim is to engineer life for new and useful purposes.

Drawn from across Yale, and based at the Systems Biology Institute at West Campus, the team recently took part in the iGEM Jamboree in Boston, the culmination of 9 months’ intensive mentored training, peer research, and public outreach focused on advancing biotechnology for the good of society.

“Throughout the year our collaboration between undergrads, grad students and faculty provided the best training platform in synthetic biology, ” said undergraduate student Colin Hemez, a previous participant who stepped into a leadership role to this year’s team. As in previous years, the students received invaluable mentorship from Farren Isaacs, faculty at the Systems Biology Institute, and from Stephen Dellaporta and Maria Moreno of the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, as well as sponsorship support from across Yale.

With team members Zach Effman, Jinny van Doorn, Gloria Wu, Mindy Le, and Leslie Wang coming together earlier this spring, the students set to designing a project inspired by President Obama and groups from across the country, who recently hatched plans to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. To bring this vision closer to reality, the students identified the need to grow food in the harsh environment of Mars, together with challenges on Earth as we strive to meet future demands for food and energy.

The Yale team identified one bacterial organism, the nitrogen-fixing rhizobia, for its potential to solve these problems. Engineering the rhizobia, which is known to form symbioses with plant roots, could provide a crucial step towards making plants that can withstand temperature extremes, and supply additional essential nutrients, whether on Earth or on Mars. By increasing their hardiness and nitrogen fixation efficiency, an eventual goal is to expand the arable land that can be used to grow crops and reduce dependence on damaging fertilizers.

Engineering two strains of rhizobia, Rhizobium tropici CIAT 899 and Sinorhizobium meliloti 1021, the students selected a technique called multiplex automated genome engineering (MAGE), a genome engineering technology that generates increased genetic diversity at targeted genomic loci through the introduction of synthetic oligonucleotides, allowing for the directed evolution of cell populations. By creating a framework to implement MAGE in rhizobia, the students suggest numerous possible applications, for example the optimization of nitrogen fixation mechanisms, and in implementing MAGE in other undomesticated organisms.

“From having daily contact in the lab, managing projects, being efficient with our time, and addressing inevitable failures – this has been a great experience,” said Mindy Le. “Our exposure to new methods and techniques in gene sequencing and cell manipulation has been amazing. We’ve all learned a lot from participating in the team.”   

In a bid to bridge the “scientific literacy gap” between scientists and the public, the students also took their work into the local community, hosting an event at the New Haven Free Public Library to engage children and their parents and spread the word about the field of synthetic biology. Through a partnership with the Building with Biology program, they hope to continue the conversation about synthetic biology through further events long after the excitement of the iGEM Jamboree has subsided.

“We’ve had a lot of fun presenting research and meeting local people and other iGEM teams from all over the world,” concludes Jaymin Patel, a graduate student in the Isaacs Lab and member of the iGEM leadership team 2016. “Our project generated a lot of attention, which bodes well for the next stage.”