Joelle Eaves is a senior majoring in chemical engineering in the College of Engineering at MSU. She participated in this year’s Synthetic Biology championship, where the MSU team won a bronze medal for an environmental project redirecting methane, produced in landfills, from environmental release into valuable compounds.
In January 2019, I received an email from an MSU engineering adviser regarding a position on the university’s International Genetically Engineered Machines, or iGEM, team. Upon some browsing of the iGEM Foundation’s website, I gathered that the purpose of the competition was to give, “students the opportunity to push boundaries of synthetic biology by tackling everyday issues facing the world.” At the time, I had no idea what synthetic biology was, but I did know what I wanted in my future career: a platform to improve the sustainability of society.
Prior to applying for the MSU iGEM team, I worked as a research assistant in a chemistry lab for two years and, therefore, thought I had a fairly strong understanding of how research was operated. From my pre-iGEM experience, I believed that research was generally limited to validating, disproving, expanding upon or refining existing knowledge. My preconceived notion of research was, however, transformed during our first team meeting. Possibly the most impactful moment to my shift in perspective was when one of our advisers, Dr. Michaela TerAvest kicked off this initial meeting with two questions: “What issues are you guys passionate about? What problem would you solve if you had the means?”
I realized that iGEM research operated by a whole different nature of research that provided us, undergraduate students, the means to improve the world through avenues of our choosing. This first meeting made it apparent to me that this research would not simply be done with the intent to obtain publishable results, but to lay the foundation for future, ground-breaking work on topics that may currently be viewed as radically progressive mentors only encouraged more of this imaginative brainstorming.
In just a few weeks, the team and mentors had simplified and organized these outlandish project ideas into three feasible, more realistic research plans. We then hosted a seminar for the biochemistry department to provide feedback on these three project pitches, which we used to decide upon one ultimate project as a team.
After extensive deliberation, the team decided to target the issue of methane emissions, in particular, from landfills. Before getting into the science behind the issue, we made a trip to Granger Landfills in Lansing, Michigan.
A tour of their facilities allowed us to see the enormous amount of municipal waste that goes into landfills, the third largest source of methane emissions in America. The Granger facilities also included a methane capture system, which was helpful when designing our proposed means of implementing the project into landfills.
The team performed preliminary research over the spring semester, which mainly entailed reading existing literature on our project topics. One of our mentors, Dr. Cecilia Martinez-Gomez, suggested the use of a type of bacteria, known generally as a methanotroph, that essentially consumes methane and excretes a precursor molecule to biofuels.
After choosing a methanotrophic species to proceed experimentally, the team designed genetic modifications to be implemented. We spent the summer and early fall months working in the lab, conducting cloning, genetic modification and other experiments. With the conclusion of research in November, we were able to attend the Jamboree to present our research and learn about other projects.
The annual, four-day iGEM event was held in Boston, Massachusetts and is the largest student competition for synthetic biology. Nearly 6,000 students, including some in high school, took place in the 2019 iGEM Jamboree. All of the projects presented at the four-day event were beyond impressive. Numerous teams displayed their innovations in the realms of medicine, diagnostics, sustainability, agriculture and more. Our team was able to win a bronze medal for Michigan State University, a huge payoff for the months of dedication we put into our project.
Attending the competition was a pivotal point in my journey to determining what field I wanted to pursue in graduate school and my future career. I can now confidently say that I want to pursue further education in the field of synthetic biology because iGEM provided me the opportunity to combat a significant societal issue, which, before this experience, I would have only dreamed possible.