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Name that bacterial tune

From left, Rebecca Gao, Eric Siryj, Luke Quinto, Megan Bernstein, Sean Curran, Percy Genyk, Stephan Genyk, Ellen Park and Rachel Kohan (Photo/Courtesy of USC iGEM)

Singing bacteria — a veritable mash-up of microorganisms — is the synthetic biology brainchild of a USC team that took part in this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) event in which undergraduates from around the world competed to build biological systems and operated them in living cells.

Advised by Sean Curran, USC Davis School of Gerontology assistant professor, and graduate student Percy Genyk, the team of  Megan Bernstein, Rachel Kohan, Ellen Park, Stephan Genyk, Eric Siryj, Luke Quinto and Rebecca Gao won a gold medal at the iGEM Regional Jamboree: Americas West for the “E. musici” project. The iGEM competition, which began in 2003, has grown to include teams from the Americas, Europe and Asia.

“From beginning to end, the team was committed — staying past midnight was very common,” Stephan Genyk said. “I am proud of the many hours and long nights we put into this project and that we were able to create an intricate system that can be used in many other fields of science.”

Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, said, “This success demonstrates the caliber of our undergraduate students in biochemical engineering and the leadership of its faculty adviser Sean Curran.”

Working with E. coli, the team manipulated the genetic factors responsible for the movement of the bacteria’s whip-like flagella. By controlling the rotation and frequency of the flagella under a variety of conditions, including pH, temperature and salt/nitrate concentration, the team translated these specific changes into an audible range.

In effect, for the first time in history, bacteria were able to “talk” directly to scientists, providing feedback about their health and hunger levels, which could prove invaluable in any laboratory setting.

“The creativity, dedication and talent on display with this team is awe-inspiring,” said Pinchas Cohen, dean of USC Davis. “Seeing rising young USC scientists with such passion and innovation is a testament to the strength of the university and the future of the field.”

On a more lighthearted level, the team’s project also translated into an ability to potentially create an E. coli keyboard, with each note represented by a plate of bacteria producing a specific frequency.

The team prided itself on spanning the divide between the arts and science while increasing public awareness of the limitless potential of bioengineering. In fact, the members also produced an outreach video and social media initiative exploring people’s misconceptions of synthetic biology while explaining some of its basic concepts and applications.

“iGEM presents the perfect opportunity to combine biology, engineering, computer science, ethics and public relations in the field of synthetic biology,” Gao said. “We all wanted to pull something with the ‘wow,’ double-take factor, and it was amazing to see our crazy, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if?’ questions actually manifest themselves.”

Added Bernstein: “Being a part of the iGEM team this year was one of my most rewarding experiences here at USC. I got to learn hands-on bench science and gain research experience.

“Sometimes the best way to really learn is to do something and participating in an iGEM project is an amazing example of that,” she said.

“This type of interdisciplinary, discovery-based learning is fundamental to training our undergraduates to be leaders in the fields of tomorrow,” said Steve A. Kay, dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “The USC Dornsife community is incredibly proud of this trailblazing team of scholars.”

While the team’s praise from the students for advisers Curran and Percy Genyk was universal, the feeling was definitely mutual.

“This year’s team was exceptionally enthusiastic and creative — no one had made E. coli sing before, and it seemed impossible, so what better challenge?” said Curran, who also holds appointments at USC Dornsife and the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “iGEM is a unique opportunity for undergrads to work on a project from development to presentation on a national stage, and I am so proud. I enjoyed working with this team so much and I can’t wait to see what they accomplish in the future!”

Name that bacterial tune

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