Gene from hardy water bug brings honors to WashU iGEM team

Two Engineering students were part of an undergraduate team that brought home honors from the iGEM Giant Jamboree, where they competed with nearly 300 teams from around the world in early November.

The iGEM team toured Monsanto facilities and talked with the company's legal counsel about how to navigate federal regulations for using its product.

Collin Kilgore and Zoe Orenstein were members of the Washington University in St. Louis iGEM team that was one of only 10 U.S. teams to win a gold medal out of 75 total teams. In addition, the team was one of only five undergraduate teams to be nominated for Best Environmental Project, the largest track in the competition, and was nominated for a Best Hardware Prize. Being nominated in a track is among the highest honors in the competition.

iGEM teams are charged with solving a problem using synthetic biology. WashU's team set out to find a gene that would resist UVB radiation, a type of radiation that kills cyanobacteria, which are responsible for producing up to 80 percent of the world's oxygen. After several months of research, the team's hypothesis was to take the Dsup gene from the tardigrade, an exceptionally hardy type of water bug, and institute it into cyanobacteria to make it resistant to UVB radiation, which penetrates the atmosphere and plays a role in premature skin aging, cataracts and skin cancers in humans.

The WashU iGEM team was the first group of researchers to test the Dsup gene for UV radiation resistance. Working all summer in the labs of Yinjie Tang and Fuzhong Zhang, both associate professors of energy, environmental & chemical engineering, the team first introduced the Dsup gene into E. coli bacteria as a proof of concept.

"We found that it protected the E. coli when exposed for long periods of time, and the cells without the gene died off," Orenstein said.

Over three hours, the Dsup-containing cells had an average survival rate of 49 percent, while the cells without the gene had a 2.3 percent average survival rate.

In addition, the team created a miniature version of an incubation room in which to grow their cells. Using materials from local hardware and pet stores, the team built an environmental simulation system for about $150 that controls temperature and monitors humidity to create an optimal cell-growing environment. This version, which compares with an $8,000 tabletop version available commercially, won the team a nomination for the Best Hardware Prize.

Janie Brennan, lecturer in the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering and the team's faculty adviser, has a long history with iGEM — she was on the undergraduate team at Purdue University, then became the graduate mentor of the Purdue team. Eugene Kim, a third-year doctoral student in Zhang's lab, was the graduate mentor.

Over the course of the team's work, team members visited Monsanto for a tour and met with Monsanto staff. The team gave its presentation to the Monsanto staff, who provided ideas and feedback. The team also talked with the company's legal counsel about how to navigate federal regulations for using its product. The company also provided financial support for the team.

Kilgore and Orenstein said the model has the potential to boost the economic viability of biofuels.

"Professor Jay Turner told us that making any type of measurable change within the survivability or efficiency of cells could be an important change for the field in general," Kilgore said. "We were definitely interested in making whatever changes we could."

Ultimately, the team's cells would be able to increase efficiency in biofuels by 3 percent to 4 percent, Orenstein said.

The 2017 iGEM team is recruiting for the 2018 team, which can choose to continue this project or begin another one, Kilgore said. Members of the 2017 team will serve as mentors to the 2018 team.

For more information on joining the iGEM team, visit or contact Brennan at

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 140 full-time faculty, 1,387 undergraduate students, 1,448 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society’s greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.