Duke Undergraduate International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Team (2016-2017)


Rapid advances in synthetic and systems biology, metabolic and enzyme engineering and nanotechnology are having profound impacts on biotechnology and related engineering fields. To stimulate and nurture students’ interest in science and engineering and prepare them to be future leaders in these emerging fields, the Duke Undergraduate International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Team was founded. iGEM works to advance the state of synthetic biology both in and out of the lab.

Project Description

This project team will identify a contemporary problem facing the larger community, then propose and build a synthetic biological solution composed of a genetically engineered microbial machine.

The main project studies the biosynthesis of Taxol in E.Coli. Taxol, generically known as paclitaxel, is a chemotherapy drug highly efficient in combating multiple forms of cancer via interference with the normal breakdown of microtubules during cell division. Deriving taxol from nature is environmentally unsustainable because the bark of the tree it is harvested from, the Pacific yew, grows too slowly to meet demands for taxol. Chemically synthesis is economically unsustainable because the intricate stereoisomerism and multistep pathway of taxol production result in low yield rates and high production costs. Manufacturing taxol via biosynthesis remedies the shortcomings of both aforementioned production methods; the need for the yew tree is circumvented and production cost is exponentially lower compared to the cost of chemical synthesis. Duke iGEM is optimizing the biosynthesis of taxol in E.coli by individually characterizing and then consolidating enzymes of the taxol biosynthesis pathway into a single strain for fermentation of taxol.

Other anticipated projects may be formed to address numerous challenges including those to human health and disease, global health, sustainability and bioenergy. The team will use advanced synthetic biology and metabolic engineering methodologies in their proposed solutions. In addition to the technical aspects of the project, a substantial policy component encourages team members to think creatively about the societal landscape of synthetic biology and develop innovative tools to improve access and education. Toward this aim the team will interface with professors in public policy and ethics to explore synthetic biology’s legal, ethical and economic impact.

iGEM projects have several key components: 1) implementation of the design-build-test cycle for synthetic biology in the lab; 2) evaluation of the ethical and societal impacts of the project; and 3) education and dissemination through an iGEM website, local high school student outreach and team representation at the annual international iGEM competition.

The previous year’s team will educate new team members along with other interested undergraduates on the scientific foundations, economic and societal impacts, and ethical and legal concerns of synthetic biology. Part of the project involves extending these education materials and distributing them to the wider public through a MOOC service (e.g., Coursera). New team members will also be educated on genetic engineering techniques and wet lab skills during the spring to be ready to jump into the project over the summer. In addition, a summer synthetic biology boot camp for local high school students is anticipated with leadership from the iGEM team.

Anticipated Outcomes

The completed project will be presented at the iGEM competition, to be held in Boston in October 2016. By this point, the team will have 1) designed, built and tested a genetically engineered machine; 2) submitted a set of BioBricks (standardized, modular DNA segments) to an international repository accessible by universities and independent labs across the world; 3) prepared an informational website; 4) collaborated with universities across the U.S. and Canada to design and distribute a course on synthetic biology for future deployment as an online lecture or MOOC; and 5) assessed the societal impacts of their project and synthetic biology in general.


Spring 2016 – Fall 2016

Team Outcomes

Silver medal, iGEM 2016

Project team site

This Team in the News

Duke iGEM Team Awarded Grants for Synthetic Biology Research and Outreach

See photos of this project team on Flickr

See earlier related team, International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) (2015-2016).

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Nicolas Buchler, Trinity - Biology*
Charles Gersbach, Pratt School - Biomedical Engineering*
Michael Lynch, Pratt School - Biomedical Engineering*

Graduate Team Members

Charles Cooper, Biochemistry
Jennifer Hennigan, Chemistry
Eirik Moreb, Biomedical Engineering
Daniel Rodriguez, Engineering

Undergraduate Team Members

Benjamin Hoover, Biomedical Engineering
Gi Na Lee, Biomedical Engineering
Thomas Luo, Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry (AB2)
Attyat Mayans, Public Policy Studies (AB)
Emma Miles, Biomedical Engineering
Neelesh Moorthy
Parth Patel, Biomedical Engineering
Shashank Rajkumar
Jaydeep Sambangi, Biomedical Engineering
Yueqi (Angie) Shen, Statistical Science (AB), Literature (AB2)
Nisakorn Valyasevi, Biology (AB), Computer Science (BS2)
Chunge Wang
Steven Yang, Computer Science (AB), Statistical Science (AB2)
Adam Yaseen

* denotes team leader