Picture this, you are at the Olympics of biology, where the competitors duke it out over who has the most creative mind and which project stands to benefit the world the most. Which team will stand out this year as the most ingenious?

Six Alberta teams at the collegiate and high school levels are on the path to finding out. They recently spent a weekend in Calgary at aGEM, Alberta’s version of the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition, preparing for the October event in Boston.

“The geekStarter program, operated by MindFuel and funded by Alberta Innovates — Technology Futures, encourages Alberta students to solve synthetic biology challenges,” said Magdalena Pop, MindFuel’s geekStarter project manager. “The program gives the teams the opportunity to work collaboratively on something that has a tangible, real-world outcome. Through project-based learning, teams pair up with industry and academic experts, setting students up to enter the field with valuable experience.”

A big thank you to judges from Canada and the U.S. who mentored and advised the competitors: Karmella Haynes, Emily Hicks, David Rozak, Megan Palmer, Patrick Wu and Todd Kuiken.

aGEM 2016-8

The BreaKERS team from Our Lady of the Snows Canmore Catholic Academy

The aGEM weekend highlight was a mock competition in preparation for iGEM. Top marks in the high school division went to the BreaKERS team from Our Lady of the Snows Canmore Catholic Academy, followed closely by team Urban Tundra from Edmonton. In the collegiate division, the University of Lethbridge team placed first, with the University of Calgary claiming second place.

geekStarter engages students in solving authentic problems and building solutions based in cutting-edge science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. By pairing student teams with mentors, and providing resources and funding, future innovators, critical thinkers and problem solving are being created to the benefit of all Albertans.

The iGEM competition challenges students to design and build biological machines using standard DNA parts that encode basic biological functions, kind of like the way computers use code to build websites and program software. Students learn to construct and program living organisms that can be assembled, like Lego, to create a wide variety of things, from organisms that can help clean up a tailing pond, to new strains of antibiotics, which could impact the future of medicine.

Current projects in development for iGEM include:

  • The Lethbridge HS team is creating a blood-clotting device based on snake venom
  • The Urban Tundra team is working on a bacteria to be used on Mars to detoxify and remediate Martian soil while simultaneously producing oxygen gas
  • Team IngenuityLab is creating a DNA-based nano-scale solar cell designed to facilitate photosynthesis
  • Team Lethbridge Collegiate is aiming to create an easy-to-use and cost-effective kit for the rapid detection and monitoring of newly emerging germs in ambulances and health-care facilities
  • Team U of C is building a biological system that would be embedded into a patch to protect astronauts against the effects of radiation during space travel
  • Our Lady of the Snows Canmore high school team is building a device for breaking down keratin wastes (like hair, feathers) in sewage, wastewater and poultry industry