BLACKSBURG, Va., May 14, 2010 - Students from five academic institutions in Virginia and West Virginia have joined together to form Virginia United, a regional team that will compete in the 2010 International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition, the nation's premier synthetic biology event for undergraduates.

Seventeen students from Bluefield State College (, the University of Virginia (, Virginia Commonwealth University (, Virginia State University (, and Virginia Tech are currently collaborating on a project to design a biosensor to detect heavy metals that are toxic to fish. Synthetic biology brings together biology, chemistry, and engineering to enable the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems as well as the redesign of existing, natural biological systems for purpose-driven applications. The iGEM ( competition focuses on research in synthetic biology and gives undergraduate students the opportunity to design and build an engineered biological system using standard DNA parts.

"The name Virginia United says it all - by pooling resources, our joint iGEM team will provide the foundation for a regional center of excellence in synthetic biology research and education" said George McArthur, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate researcher and founder of the iGEM teams at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia, who proposed the combined team.  "This ambitious multi-institutional effort will provide a model for further cooperation that will build on Virginia's reputation as a magnet for technology business and research and promote a wide range of scientific advances."

The Virginia United project, "Co-Design of a Biosensor of Multiple Toxins with Quorum Sensing Amplifiers," will involve genetically engineering a biosensor that can detect levels of mercury, copper, and zinc that could be potentially harmful for fish. While being subjected to small amounts of each of these chemicals individually may not be dangerous for fish, exposure to combinations of even minute amounts can be toxic. The goal is to develop a device that can identify when various combinations of these chemicals are present. Three sub-teams have been created to focus on specific aspects of the project, which include an input layer (to sense the presence of the chemicals), logic layer (to elicit a determined response, including signal amplification using quorum sensing), and output layer (where a readout signal is used to report what toxins are present). The team plans to find the best implementation of the biosensor by exploring three distinct design strategies.

"Like many engineering projects, there are a variety of ways to design and implement a Synthetic Biology project," explained VBI Associate Professor Jean Peccoud (, who serves as an advisor for the team. "The goal of the team is to create three different versions of a single design, which will allow them to compare these approaches in an effort to find an optimal solution. The concept of this project could also be applicable to other areas, such as the detection of bioterrorism agents."

The Virginia United iGEM team is partially funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop GenoCAD (, an open source web-based application that allows users to design genetic constructs made of standardized genetic parts. iGEM will provide the GenoCAD development team with an opportunity to assess how the tool can catalyze the exploration of creative new approaches to designing and building engineered biological systems while encouraging the development of collaborations and sharing of information and experiences within a workgroup.


About the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute

The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute ( at Virginia Tech is a premier bioinformatics, computational biology, and systems biology research facility that uses transdisciplinary approaches to science combining information technology, biology, and medicine. These approaches are used to interpret and apply vast amounts of biological data generated from basic research to some of today's key challenges in the biomedical, environmental, and agricultural sciences. With more than 240 highly trained multidisciplinary, international personnel, research at the institute involves collaboration in diverse disciplines such as mathematics, computer science, biology, plant pathology, biochemistry, systems biology, statistics, economics, synthetic biology, and medicine. The large amounts of data generated by this approach are analyzed and interpreted to create new knowledge that is disseminated to the world's scientific, governmental, and wider communities.




Susan Bland
(540) 231-7912; please enable JavaScript to view

Published by Susan Bland, May 14, 2010