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MSU Students Win Silver Medal at Synthetic Biology Competition

The Shewlock Holmes team, from left to right: Ciara Fromwiller, Serenity Tyll, Cody Madsen, Michaela TerAvest, Danny Ducat, Noelia Bravo, Brian Amburn, Donna Liebelt (advisor). Not included: Bjoern Hamberger, Tim Whitehead. By Shewlock Homes.

MSU’s second-ever iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) student team won a Silver Medal at the 2017 competition in Boston.

The team was made up of seven students from Chemical Engineering, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Animal Science, ranging from a graduating senior to a high school student about to enter MSU this January.

Motivated by the Flint water crisis, the group set out to develop new technology for water testing: a biosensor for detecting dangerous contaminants in the environment.

Based on this unique ability to find ‘clues’ in the water, the project was dubbed ‘Shewlock Holmes,’ a nod to the microbe the students worked with, a bacterium called Shewanella oneidensis.

Shewenella is rare among microbes in its ability to transport electrons across its membranes. The team hijacked the transport system so it only turns on in the presence of a chosen contaminant. That way, it works like a smoke or carbon monoxide detector.

After successfully showing that the genetically engineered ‘Shewlock’ could detect and report hydrogen peroxide, the team then aimed to make the measurement system smaller, more affordable, and sensitive to a broader range of contaminants.

Bjoern Hamberger, one of the project mentors says, “The students built a sensor toolbox of 9 modules, each that senses a different contaminant. The modules can be exchanged like Lego bricks, so Shewenella is customized for different detection purposes.”

The Shewlock Holmes team also tested their project for public safety, an important part of iGEM’s ‘human practices.’

A big public concern is the possible release of biotechnologically engineered organisms into the environment. The team found that “Shewlock” could be completely inactivated by a simple drying procedure, without needing any special equipment.

Another iGEM ‘human practice’ includes educating kids and college students about synthetic biology.

The MSU team shared their project at the Michigan Science Center in Detroit, and also joined the MSU Women in Engineering Summer Camp. Additionally, they organized and hosted the 2017 upper Midwest iGEM meetup at MSU, inviting other teams in the region for a day of presentations, commiseration, and fun.

  • Bjoern Hamberger, Igor Houwat via the MSU-Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory website

PHOTO: The Shewlock Holmes team, from left to right: Ciara Fromwiller, Serenity Tyll, Cody Madsen, Michaela TerAvest, Danny Ducat, Noelia Bravo, Brian Amburn, Donna Liebelt (advisor). Not included: Bjoern Hamberger, Tim Whitehead.
By Shewlock Homes.


This year’s professor mentors were: Michaela TerAvestTim WhiteheadDanny Ducat, andBjoern Hamberger.

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