High School Students Help Grow ‘Genetically Engineered Machines’

In addition to their prize-winning science project, the 2014 UCSF iGEM team morphed into superheroes as a creative way to teach synthetic biology to visitors at The Exploratorium.

Taking molecular parts from living organisms to engineer biological systems sounds a bit like science fiction, but with the help of UCSF researchers, high school students are diving into this growing field of synthetic biology.  

It’s all part of a global synthetic biology competition called iGEM.

The international competition aims to engage students in the constantly evolving world of synthetic biology, which is part molecular biology, part systems biology and part genetic engineering. While the “Giant Jamboree” is a fun, lively event, the lab work and presentation preparation are serious work – and real science findings come out of the competition. 

This year UCSF’s team won “Best Presentation,” competing against 225 teams hailing from across the globe. Of the two UCSF presenters, one was Eleanor Amidei, who was 17 years old at the time. 

To prepare for the competition, the students spend all summer designing their experiments, running them, building a website, developing a presentation and a few other requirements, including submitting a genetic fragment to the synthetic biology bank at MIT.   

“At first it was really overwhelming,” said Amidei, who is now a freshmen at UC Berkeley. “It was just scary to be thrown into lab environment. But you kind of just pick up the work as you’re going; you go with it, you read articles, you study more about what you’re doing and it becomes easy, it becomes second nature.”

Bringing High Schoolers Into the Lab

When Wendell Lim, PhD, formed the first UCSF team eight years ago, he needed to include participants younger than graduate students to meet the iGEM contest eligibility requirement. Instead of bringing in college students, he partnered with high school teacher George Cachianes who teaches a two-year biotechnology program at Lincoln High School in San Francisco. Every year, a few of the top high school students are invited to join the iGEM team.

Team member Eric Wong (left) accepts certificates recognizing the team's efforts from iGEM, the City of San Francisco and the California State Assembly.  

This year’s team also partnered with UC Berkeley undergrads who bring additional programming and graphic design elements to the team skill set. Several PhD candidates and post-docs from Lim's lab and the Graduate Division also serve as mentors for the team. 

Lim said the experience benefits both the high school students and the PhD students, who learn to be better mentors.

“What is really unique about this experience is that most of the time, when you do an internship in a lab, you’re assigned to one person who tells you what to do, who gives you instructions,” he said.

But here the group is really a team, said Lim. There’s a lot of brainstorming, and the students, few undergrads, postdocs, all really work together to shape the project. “We’ve defined the sandbox we’ll play in, but exactly what we do and how we do it – they’re a part of defining.”

Real Science Findings

This year the “sandbox” focused on testing yeast cells to determine if they exhibit collective behavior. That’s a loose term for the “group think” behavior exhibited by seemingly choreographed flocks of birds or tightly synchronized schools of fish swirling in a flash. This kind of group response also occurs in some cells and even electrons – and in tiny yeast cells.

The team discovered that the presence of the group actually influences the behavior of the yeast cells. Though the cells are genetically the same, they respond differently when isolated and respond in synchronized manner when together as a group. 

This behavior hadn’t been shown in yeast, said Kara Helmke, the education and outreach coordinator for UCSF’s Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology who works with the iGEM teams. 

“The findings were something we didn’t even realize would be possible,” Helmke said. “It was great we could demonstrate it.”

Beyond getting results in the lab, the UCSF team is producing new scientists: Of the more than 60 high school alumni of the program, all are pursuing or have completed science degrees.

“Biotechnology is really a unique aspect of San Francisco and important part of the economy, and it’s exciting to help train the next generation of people,” said Helmke.