A team of students from William & Mary topped all other undergraduate teams from the United States in this year’s iGEM Grand Jamboree, the world’s premier synthetic biology competition that took place in Paris Nov. 2-5. By developing a project that has real-world implications related to soil degradation, the W&M team earned a gold medal and landed in the top 10 out of 400 teams from around the globe. 

In addition to winning a gold medal, the W&M team was nominated for Best Project in four categories: Mathematical Model, Presentation, Foundational Advance and Measurement. They won first prize in the Measurement category, which involves acquiring and analyzing data – in perfect alignment with the data cornerstone initiative of William & Mary’s Vision 2026 strategic plan.

Understanding of data-related concepts opens up new opportunities for discovery and innovation. To prepare students for effective careers in an increasingly data-intensive academic and economic environment, William & Mary is committed to expanding data fluency throughout the curriculum. In recent years, the demand for data-focused academic curricula has been growing steadily at William & Mary, implying a proliferation of data-intensive research opportunities that the coming data hub at Jefferson Lab will further multiply

“It was just so rewarding to see all of the team members interacting with the international community of synthetic biologists, and it was so satisfying seeing the reputation of our team,” said Margaret Saha, Chancellor Professor of Biology, who has mentored W&M iGEM teams since 2014.

Each year, the W&M iGEM team has performed cutting edge synthetic biology research, and the W&M iGEM program has a demonstrated history of performing well at the Grand Jamboree. Over the course of nine months, the team conceptualizes its project, then designs, builds and tests a genetic circuit intended to solve a real-world problem.

Megan Fleeharty, a senior majoring in neuroscience, is the 2023 iGEM team leader. 

“I would have been so proud of this team and this project regardless of whether or not we received any awards, because I truly believe that this research is so novel and important,” said Fleeharty. “But I do know that we are all so happy and excited that we were recognized for our hard work this year on such an international scale.”

Saha also commends the members of the team for their dedication and hard work.

The 2023 W&M iGEM team taking in the sights of Paris. (Courtesy photo)

“There were literally hundreds of excellent projects, so the competition was incredibly intense. But the W&M students performed flawlessly, giving an excellent presentation and addressing questions with confidence and expertise,” said Saha. “This is largely due to the fact that they were so engaged, knowledgeable and excited about their projects.”

The pinnacle of the project is the Grand Jamboree, a highly competitive international event in which teams from around the world present their research to academic, industry and government professionals, as well as other students.

iGEM teams are interdisciplinary and include members from a wide array of STEM fields such as biology, chemistry, neuroscience, mathematics, computer science and physics. 

The 2023 W&M iGEM team members (and their majors) are team leader Megan Fleeharty ’24 (neuroscience); Kate Carline ’26 (chemistry and public policy); Lin Fang ’24 (biology and computational and applied mathematics and statistics); Walker Knapp ’25 (computer science and bioengineering); Libby McClough ’26 (biology and physics); Diego Morandi Zerpa ’24 (neuroscience); Sofia Najjar ’26 (biology); Emma Small ’25 (engineering physics and applied design and computational and applied mathematics and statistics); Bilalay Tchadi ’25 (biology). Jason Dean Robinson, a second-year master’s student studying biology, served as an advisor for the team. 

Current iGEM project

The 2023 W&M team competed in the Foundational Advance track, which seeks to improve the discipline of synthetic biology as a whole rather than focusing on a specific applied project. Teams within this track find new ideas to combat technical issues faced by core synthetic biology technologies.

For this year’s project, members of the team determined that soil synthetic biology is an underexplored area and that soil synthetic biology could potentially address multiple issues related to soil degradation that is occurring on a global level. Thus, they focused on developing soil bacteria that can serve as a chassis in natural soil environments. 

A chassis is a host cell that contains an engineered genetic system. A workable chassis is essential for success in real-world environments.

Up until now, engineered bacteria have mostly been tested in environments in which they’re given ideal conditions with plenty of resources and no competitors. In order to more accurately mimic real-world conditions, the team tested the bacteria in a lab environment similar to what the engineered organism would experience in the natural world. They even included a predator. In this case the threat was a virus called a bacteriophage that infects bacteria.

The team completed extensive measurements and modeling to determine how well the different types of engineered bacteria functioned under such conditions, and the data that the team collected from this research lays the groundwork for future soil synbio research.

“The team accepted and undertook this challenge with relish,” said Saha. “They worked so hard and so smart, employing a wide range of interdisciplinary approaches to solve each and every problem. This stems from their dedication to and creativity in solving pressing global problems facing our planet with new approaches. The students have a strong desire to contribute to saving the planet with novel approaches. This enthusiasm came through in their research and in their presentations at the competition.”

, Research Writer