Big ideas from unlikely places

- January 27, 2017

Undergrads Emma Finlayson-Trick and Mostafa Hagar were two members of a Dal team that competed in an international synthetic biology competition. (Nick Pearce photo)
Undergrads Emma Finlayson-Trick and Mostafa Hagar were two members of a Dal team that competed in an international synthetic biology competition. (Nick Pearce photo)

When a group of Dalhousie science students spent a few afternoons at Shubenacadie Wildlife Park last summer, their reason for being there was pretty unusual compared to other park visitors.

They weren’t enjoying a casual walk through the trails, watching the park’s animals snooze, eat and play. These students were collecting fecal samples from the porcupines that call the park home.

Although that fieldwork was less than glamorous, it was a step fourth-year Microbiology student Emma Finlayson-Trick says was necessary to explore a big idea.

“We read that in the softwood lumber industry, in order to produce paper, you first have to remove cellulose [from the wood]. To do that, you have to use fire, water or chemicals,” says Emma. “We thought: there has to be a better way. So we started to think about the natural cellulose degraders out there, and we thought about the porcupine, because it eats wood.”

Sights set on friendly competition

Emma and the other students were preparing a research project to present at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition held annually in Boston, Massachusetts. It would be the second year that Dalhousie students competed at iGEM, and Emma was set to lead the team as its president. The competition is geared towards students interested in synthetic biology—an emerging field that combines biology with engineering.

“From the porcupine fecal samples, we isolated DNA which provided us with information as to what bacteria were living in the porcupine gut,” explains Emma. “That enabled us to search and identify enzymes involved in cellulose degradation within the bacterial genes.”

With the goal of finding an enzyme that could potentially one day be incorporated into sustainable paper manufacturing, the iGEM team reached out to Shubenacadie Wildlife Park. The provincial park agreed to help the team start its work.

A range of backgrounds

There were seven undergraduate students from various disciplines on Dal’s iGEM team: microbiology, chemistry, mathematics and medical sciences. Some even brought a flair for graphic design, web development and communications to the table too. The iGEM team was mentored by two graduate students from microbiology and pharmacology, and supervised by professors in the Faculty of Medicine.

“The microbiome is a fairly hot topic in science right now and that’s why we wanted to explore it in our project,” explains Emma. “It’s a diverse community of bacteria that can work symbiotically to perform various functions. We know the gut microbiome has the ability to metabolize non-digestible carbohydrates like cellulose.”

The team was able to work with the Langille Lab at Dalhousie University, led by Dr. Morgan Langille who specializes in microbiome research. Emma and her peers identified some really interesting bacteria to investigate with their help.

From there, the iGEM team found cellulose-degrading enzymes and had a solid body of research to present at the five-day competition this past fall with over 280 other teams. Their hard work paid off—expert judges rated the research at a bronze-level and provided constructive feedback for building on the project.

“It was an incredible bonding experience,” says Emma, who speaks very highly of her teammates. “It was also a foundation for this coming year,” she adds, noting the potential of the bacteria and enzymes discovered could be useful in biofuel production as well.

Getting ready for 2017

The chance to conduct research during an undergraduate degree is a unique opportunity for Dalhousie students; the chance to collaborate between different disciplines is even better.

Being part of a student-led team that gets to present their work at an international competition is an unmatched learning experience. Luckily, there’s no stopping the Dal iGEM team — they’re already recruiting new members until January 28, 2017. Learn more here.

(Additional photos provided by the iGEM team)


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