A team of undergraduates at the University of California-Santa Cruz has developed a system called Progenie that’s designed to target and eliminate a toxic gene found in Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.

The team’s method provides an alternative to antibiotics commonly used in agriculture. This new method is designed in part to stop the rise of drug-resistant bacteria. 

UC Santa Cruz undergraduates receive a gold medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Jamboree.

The team’s project won a gold medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Jamboree, an annual competition that brings together student teams from around the world to present synthetic biology projects that aim to address pressing global issues.

At the jamboree, teams are judged on their virtual project posters, wiki pages, and video presentations. Teams are awarded gold medals if they demonstrate excellence across multiple categories.

The team from UC-Santa Cruz solicited input from members of the local community who would benefit most from their new technology.

“Developing our project idea took months of brainstorming, research and outreach,” said team co-captain Torrey Brownell, a fourth-year biology student. “We wanted our project to have a strong positive impact on our community and give us room to explore each of our scientific interests.”

“This project was solidified after our team talked with local stakeholders — cattle ranchers, farmers and packaging plant workers — and heard about the economic and food waste impact that occurs with foodborne bacterial outbreaks,” said co-captain Stephen Hwang, now a first-year biomolecular engineering and bioinformatics graduate student.

The undergraduates worked with associate teaching professor of biomolecular engineering David Bernick who provided guidance and helped the team set goals and timelines. In March 2021, the team members began developing and testing their system.

“One of the most fulfilling aspects of iGEM was helping a pandemic-starved group of students become the engineers and scientists that they have been dreaming about for years,” said Bernick.

The 2021 UCSC team included co-captains Hwang and Brownell and members Rhea Kamath, Franklin Zheng, David Kelaita, Denise Calderon, Julia Howard, Tobin Berger-Cahn, Rose Delvillar, Nabil Mohammed, Yi-Chi Chu, Tanya Ivanov, Tarabryn Grismer, Wen Liu, Emily Hallamasek and Fonz Gamino.

The team members plan to continue developing the project.

More information on Progenie can be found on the iGEM website.

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