TAMIL NADU

Switching on light of success

Enabling project: (From left) Nelson Vadassery, Sailaja Nori, Gairik Sachdeva, Hemanth Giri Rao, Sayash Kumar, Sowmya Balendiran, Guhan Jayaraman and Mukund Thattai, the team that worked on a project for the iGEM 2008 competition.

Enabling project: (From left) Nelson Vadassery, Sailaja Nori, Gairik Sachdeva, Hemanth Giri Rao, Sayash Kumar, Sowmya Balendiran, Guhan Jayaraman and Mukund Thattai, the team that worked on a project for the iGEM 2008 competition.   | Photo Credit: — Photo: Special Arrangement

Meera Srinivasan

City students bag a medal and two special awards in iGEM contest

CHENNAI: A team of final year city students pursuing biotechnology at IIT-Madras and Sri Venkateswara College of Engineering (SVCE) have made a mark at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) Competition, held earlier this month at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston.

The team from Chennai, with five IIT-ians and a student from SVCE, bagged the silver medal and two special awards for the ‘Best Foundational Advance’ and the ‘Best Engineered Biological Device.’

Guhan Jayaraman, associate professor, Department of Biotechnology, IIT-Madras, and Mukund Thattai of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, guided the student-team through the project.

The student team had Gairik Sachdeva, Hemanth Giri Rao, Nelson Vadassery, Sailaja Nori, Sayash Kumar of IIT- Madras and Sowmya Balendiran of SVCE.

The team’s prize-winning project involved a new method to turn genes in bacteria on, using a combination of chemical inputs and heat. “Any living organism is made of genes. In this project, we have designed a switch that gives us control to switch genes on and off in bacteria,” Hemanth Giri explains.

When asked if this would eventually lead to a development where babies could be made to order, with a similar switch holding control over the choice of genes, the members caution – ‘that would be rather far-fetched.’

“What we have attempted is at a very basic and small level,” he clarifies.

“We still don’t know what the potential practical applications of this are. We have to investigate this for more details,” says Prof. Jayaraman.

“The project was completely extra-curricular. The awards are encouraging because this year, ours was the only team from India to participate and win.”

Last year, an NCBS team led by Prof. Thattai won a prize at iGEM.

What the team has now come up with is a novel combination of natural switches. The preliminary study has brought out interesting results. “Such events will motivate them to innovate in their chosen field of study and perhaps take up specialised studies at top-notch institutions,” Prof. Jayaraman says. “Prof. Thattai’s inputs were critical in this project,” he adds. On behalf of the team, Prof. Thattai went to MIT taking with him the video recording of its presentation.

The iGEM competition is a renowned Synthetic Biology competition primarily for undergraduate students. Student teams are given a kit with biological parts obtained from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts.

Using these parts, and others designed by them, the teams would have to design and build biological systems and operate them in living cells.

Nearly 80 teams representing over 20 countries participated in iGEM 2008, all of them aspiring to find solutions to problems in areas such as environment, energy, health, and foundational research.

The Chennai team’s project was funded initially by IIT-M alumnus Shrikumar Suryanarayan. Additional funding was provided by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

The gene synthesis services were provided by Enzene Biosciences, Bangalore.

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