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Citadel News Service
5 Feb 2013

Cadets genetically engineer a little press

Research conducted by three Citadel alumni while they were cadets has resulted in some national attention for them and the college.

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From left to right Assistant Professor Claudia Rocha, Patrick Sullivan, Hunter Matthews, Brian Burnley and Assistant Professor David Donnell.

As students biology majors Brian Burnley and Hunter Matthews and electrical engineering major Patrick Sullivan earned financial backing from the Provost's Office and the Department of Biology in the spring of 2010 to create The Citadel's first international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition team. The iGEM contest is a worldwide synthetic biology competition in which undergraduate student teams are given a kit of biological parts, and working at their own schools, use the parts and new parts of their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.

Aware of the current obesity epidemic, the cadets' plan was to genetically engineer a strain of the primary bacterial symbiont isolated from the human digestive system, E. coli, with the molecular components necessary to transform it into a self-adjusting human appetite regulator. The trio conducted research during the 2010 spring semester and summer in the laboratories of Citadel biology professors Claudia Rocha and David Donnell.

The students assembled much of the molecular components of their control system using DNA from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts at the Massachusetts's Institute of Technology and arranged for the critical component, a gene encoding a human satiety-regulating peptide called "PYY," to be synthesized by a biotechnology firm on their behalf. As part of the iGEM experience, the students sought to increase public awareness of synthetic biology and its applications by demonstrating the isolation of DNA from strawberries at the farmer's market in downtown Charleston.

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E.coli (in red flourescence protein) engineered by The Citadel iGEM team.

The students presented the results of their research at the annual iGEM competition at MIT in November, 2010. Although they didn't win the competition, Team Citadel's concept caught the attention of Harvard geneticist George Church. Church was so impressed with the cadet's concept that he and co-author Ed Regis chose the cadets' project to introduce a chapter concerning iGEM in their recently published book, "Regenesis" (Basic Books, 2012).

"The book provides a fascinating look at the potential of synthetic biology and should give inspiration to future iGEM teams at The Citadel and elsewhere," said Donnell. "The formative nature of the iGEM project for the members of Team Citadel is clear. As their professors we could not be happier with the outcome of the iGEM project and we look forward to fielding another Team Citadel in the near future."

Upon completion of the project, team captain Burnley went to work as an intern for the biotechnology company Gingko Bioworks. He is now preparing applications for graduate school. Matthews is currently working as a research technician at MUSC and is in the process of applying to medical schools. Sullivan spent a semester at MIT after the iGEM experience and continues his interest in engineering.