Our BioBuilderClub teams are doing such impressive work that we can’t help bragging about them! As a reminder, in the BioBuilderClub program, student teams develop novel synthetic biology applications and have the opportunity to present their work at a professional level. The BioTreks journal is a big part of that professional-level opportunity.
BioTreks is the only international synthetic biology journal that publishes solely high school student-authored and student-reviewed design and perspectives articles. Each year, synthetic biology students can apply to have their papers published in BioTreks. The students learn to follow the journal’s author guidelines to prepare a professional-quality article that is presented at a yearly online review conference. Students also review and provide feedback on their peers’ submissions during the conference. These practices allow students to gain valuable pre-professional experience writing and evaluating scientific manuscripts.
BioBuilderClub teams from around the world have had 52 articles published in BioTreks since its first issue in 2016. Most recently, BioBuilderClub teams had 16 articles published in the 2020 annual edition of BioTreks. One of those teams is at Tyngsborough High School in Tyngsborough, Massachusetts.
The Tyngsborough team’s work focused on engineering a genetic program to produce a safe and effective mosquito repellent. They named it AliveSCENT™.
As a vector for disease transmission, mosquitoes are responsible for over 700,000 deaths each year, making it one of the most dangerous animals on the planet. Current methods of repelling mosquitoes, such as DEET, can cause their own problems like skin and eye irritation and allergic reactions. We propose a solution to this public health problem called AliveSCENT, a biologically-inspired mosquito deterrent that relies on the native methylerythritol 4-phosphate (MEP) pathway of Escherichia coli in the production of limonene as a natural, odor-releasing system for commercial use. Limonene is an aromatic compound that makes up a large portion of most citrus scents including lemons and is a safer alternative to sprays and flames and is cleaner than the insect mess created by bug zappers. The smell of the compound by itself has been compared to that of citrus and turpentine, known insect repellents. This product will attempt to reduce the incidence of malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses. This system will be constructed through plasmid design, assembly, and integration, followed by verification of limonene product using gas chromatography, odor detection by wafting, and evaluation as an effective repellent using a mosquito choice chamber. Here, work towards plasmid assembly will be shown. This phase will require the assembly of a stationary phase promoter, with a ribosome binding site and limonene synthase translational unit into a red fluorescent protein-encoding vector.
The team made significant advances and also identified intermediate steps that will fine tune their design. They are now working on integrating those steps into their process, so look for their updated article in next year’s BioTreks!
The AliveSCENT team’s teacher, Rebekah Ravgiala, sees first-hand how work like this has the power to transform a student’s career trajectory. In fact, one of the science mentors for the AliveSCENT team is Michael Sheets, a former Tyngsborough student of Ms. Ravgiala, who shifted his focus to biological engineering thanks to his BioBuilderClub experiences. Ms. Ravgiala also sees her students strengthening their critical thinking skills as well as soft skills such as perseverance and collaboration within a team.
The Tyngsborough team’s work was also supported by Oxford Genetics, who provided the luciferase gene needed for their project. In addition, Integrated DNA Technologies donated the needed PCR primers and NEB donated 5-alpha competent E. coli. The team’s mentor, graduate student Mr. Michael Sheets, donated time, expertise, and enthusiasm as well as the pBbE5a-RFP vector.
The first season of BioBuilderClub had four high school teams from New England. Since then it has grown to include 39 teams from around the world each year. Many teams collaborate with each other, including the Tyngsborough team’s collaboration with a team at the Sinarmas World Academy in Indonesian. As the Tyngsborough team says, the “syn-thusiasm” around synthetic biology is growing, and BioBuilder is thrilled to be a part of it!