iGEM is an international program for college students that originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Indiana teachers are taking it to the high school level in an initiative that germinated, in part, in a laboratory at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
“We just thought this was something that could be translated to the high school level,” said John Rihm, who teaches biotechnical engineering at Greenfield-Central in Greenfield, Ind. “High school students catch on pretty quickly.”
The iGEM program “challenges them to think about biological systems differently,” said Rebecca Schini, biomedical innovations teacher at Greenfield-Central. “They have to apply engineering concepts, and it introduces a lot of math.”
What the students are catching on to is a synthetic biology competition, initially geared at college undergraduate students, in which student teams are given sets of standard biological parts – essentially sections of DNA – and use them to build unique biological systems.
While the college students use the E. coli bacterium as the basis for their systems, the high school students are using yeast, in part because it’s easier to work with and is perceived as safer, said Rihm.
The students’ use of yeast builds on work on yeast Rihm undertook several years ago when he spent a summer working in the lab of Mark Goebl, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the school of medicine, as part of another high school-based program, Project Lead the Way.
Dr. Goebl has continued to work with the teachers, and has been advising them as they implemented the iGEM program here.
“It’s not easy, but it’s very doable at a high school level,” Dr. Goebl said. “It’s fun watching it grow.”
Although this week’s jamboree will include five teams from Indiana high schools – two from Greenfield-Central, one from Warren Central in Indianapolis and two from South Bend – next year could see a significant expansion. Schini has taken on the role of coordinator for all high school iGEM activities, and already 20 schools from across the U.S. as well as Canada, Great Britain and Turkey have expressed interest in participating next year.
When the students gather Saturday they will present their work in poster format, similar to sessions held at professional academic meetings. In the afternoon they will make 20-minute presentations about their work.
In the case of the Rihm’s team, that project involved working with a gene in yeast that sequesters metals such as copper and cadmium. The students, if they are successful, will create a strain of yeast that can serve as a biosensor for the presence of cadmium in the environment, Rihm said.