UCSF-Led High School Team Wins National Honors for Genetic Engineering

College, bars and even voting may still be farther down the road, but for six San Francisco teens, genetic engineering is “been there, done that.” For two months last summer, students from Abraham Lincoln High School gave up hanging out by the pool to hang out in a UCSF lab, where they tackled an advanced biotechnology project that offers valuable insight into how cellular identity is formed and controlled. Their project earned them multiple honors at this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition at MIT, where 84 teams from 21 countries competed for top prize. The UCSF-backed team left the November competition with awards for “Best New Application Area” and “Best Poster, Runner Up.” This is the second year UCSF has partnered with Lincoln High to host an iGEM team, and it remains the only predominantly high-school team in the competition. Of course, these were no ordinary high-school science students: Lincoln offers an intensive, two-year biotechnology course that was developed with support from the Genentech Foundation. UCSF’s iGEM team members had all participated, and excelled, in that course before getting started on their project. In addition to the Lincoln students, two international students — one from Slovenia and one from China — joined this year’s team, sponsored by a grant from the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), a partnership organization that includes UCSF. As they made use of UCSF’s vast resources, the high-school students were supported and guided by a dozen graduate students and postdoctoral mentors. The group operated under the supervision of UCSF faculty advisers Wendell Lim, PhD, a professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology and Hana El-Samad, PhD, an assistant professor-in-residence in the Department of Biochemistry. “This competition is a great way to get kids involved in science, but you also form a team that really works together,” Lim said. “It’s unlike a lot of what we do normally in our lab, but it’s a paradigm for where biological research is headed, in terms of the team effort.” Raquel Gomes, the program coordinator, said the students were extremely hard workers, often staying in the lab long after everyone else had left for the day. “A lot of the work is very independent,” she said, “but there were always people around to guide them if they had questions and to give them a good basic scientific foundation to build from.” For their project, the team created a synthetic form of chromatin, the complex of DNA and proteins found in humans and other organisms whose cells contain a nucleus. The way the DNA is packaged in chromatin controls gene expression within a cell. “We started from a very simple model system in yeast, and tried to figure out ways we could control this organization, this packaging of DNA,” said Andrew Horwitz, a postdoctoral fellow in the UCSF Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, who supervised the project. Like its naturally occurring counterpart, the students’ synthetic chromatin was able to work like a light switch, silencing diverse genes as well as multiple genes at once, Horwitz said. It also proved dominant over transcription factors, the proteins that bind to specific sequences of DNA and activate genes. Though their experiment used yeast, the team’s findings could ultimately have major implications for humans, Lim said. “In our cells, certain genes are on and certain genes are off, and that gets locked in a permanent way early on,” he said. “The ability to manipulate that could be very powerful.” One potential application of synthetic chromatin is in stem cell engineering. “If you could control (genetic expression), you could start to do things like control cell identity and convert cell types,” Horwitz noted. “You could de-differentiate a cell by taking a stem cell and controlling what type of cell it turns into.” Several of the iGEM team members are now college students in San Francisco and have expressed interest in continuing their research. Their return to the UCSF lab would be welcome, Gomes said. “Everyone was really happy to have them around,” she said. “It got really quiet here after they were gone.” Related Links: Summer Assignment: Genetically Engineer a New Cell UCSF Today, Aug. 3, 2007 Lim Lab at UCSF 2008 International Genetically Engineered Machine competition