The Illinois iGEM team won a bronze medal at the 2018 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition for their work on the relationship between lactic acid bacteria and baker’s yeast.
The iGEM competition brings together undergraduate students from across the world to present their research in synthetic biology and compete for prizes.
The Illinois team was made up of five undergraduate students: Pranathi Karumanchi, Ziyu Wang, Liam Healy, Amie Bott and Alexander Ruzicka.
Their project was funded by the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI), a collaboration between the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) that aims to develop sustainable biofuels and bioproducts.
The team was mentored by graduate and postdoctoral researchers Carl Schultz, Shekhar Mishra, and Matthew Waugh, IGB Outreach Activities Manager Courtney Fenlon, CABBI Research Coordinator Elizabeth Murphy, and Associate Professor of Bioengineering and CABBI scientist Ting Lu.
The idea for the team’s project came from the joint work of Lu and Yong-Su Jin, a professor of food science and human nutrition and CABBI scientist. Lu is researching lactic acid bacteria, which is used in the production of cheese and yogurt, while Jin studies baker’s yeast, which is used in baking bread. Lu and Jin want to see what a collaboration between these two organisms could achieve in the field of metabolic engineering.
Metabolic engineering involves modifying organisms to produce valuable products, such as biofuels and chemicals. Most metabolic engineering research involves working with a single species, but Lu said this has several limitations.
“When we look at microbes in nature, we know that they do not exist in a single cell or single strain,” Lu said. “Instead, they always present in the form of complex communities.”
Lu wants to investigate the ecosystem of lactic acid bacteria and baker’s yeast and find a way to use them for producing valuable products. He said evidence has shown that these two organisms often coexist naturally and can even boost each other’s production.
The Illinois iGEM team continued this work by studying how lactic acid bacteria and baker’s yeast work together, testing different environments and food sources.
One of the biggest challenges the team faced was the lack of prior research in this area. Their project was one of inquiry and trial and error, but the team made quick progress.
Lu said that the discoveries and progresses the team made are new to the field.
Their work contributes to the goal of one day engineering these organisms so they are capable of creating a valuable product — the goal of metabolic engineering.