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  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    Team member Nick Csicsery records data Monday from the work of the University of California, Davis, International Genetically Engineered Machine team, which is working to build a biological system that would break down a plastic commonly used in soda bottles. The goal is to build from biological components a product that operates in a living cell.

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    Csicsery holds samples of the UC Davis team's work – tiny here, but with huge possibilities.

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    UC Davis iGEM team member Colin Deniston uses an ultraviolet light to help him see the DNA in gel, part of the effort the team hopes will bring it a victory in the scientific competition. The group of 10 students has been working all summer on the project.

UC Davis students work to engineer plastic-degrading bacteria

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012 - 6:37 am

Every weekday this summer, 10 students from different departments at UC Davis have come together in the university's Genome Center to work on what they hope will one day be the answer to cleaning up the world's landfills.

These students are members are of the UC Davis International Genetically Engineered Machine, or iGEM, team, and they have been working together since before the summer break started to create a project worthy of the world's premiere collegiate synthetic biology competition.

The premise of the competition, which began in 2003 at MIT, is simple: Student teams across the world receive a kit of biology parts from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. They then have the summer to work with fellow undergraduates to create a biological system that includes those given parts and any new parts of the students' own design. The finished product is supposed to operate in a living cell.

According to the official iGEM website, the entire competition is centered on answering one question: "Can simple biological systems be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells? Or is biology so complicated that every case is unique?"

This UC Davis team is tackling the problem of plastic pollution and is working to create a bacteria that can biodegrade polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, a commonly used plastic that's in such items as soda bottles and food trays.

"Putting this in the simplest way possible, we're trying to engineer bacteria that can degrade plastic in a way that the bacteria can then use the product as a food source to live," said team captain Nick Csicsery, a senior at UC Davis.

This year's team will be the fourth that UC Davis has ever sent to compete at the iGEM competition, following in the footsteps of last year's successful four-person team that placed in the top 16 at the world championship and received the Best Foundational Advancement Award.

The current team is working toward doing well at the North America West Jamboree regional qualification round, which will be held Oct. 12-14 at Stanford University. At Stanford, teams will be asked to give 20-minute presentations on their projects, followed by five minutes of answering questions that judges may have. The teams are also required to create a poster display detailing their project.

Finalists from this round will have the opportunity to advance to the world championship held at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., Nov. 2-5.

In addition to the traditional iGEM competition, this year's UC Davis team will also enter the new Entrepreneurship Division, where it will attempt to come up with a successful business plan for marketing its project in the real world.

"I think at the moment (the team) is looking quite good," said Marc Facciotti, a professor in the department of biomedical engineering and one of the faculty advisers for the UC Davis team. "They picked a hard project, but they've been clever in the way they've approached it. I'm pretty hopeful that, scientifically at least, their project will turn out quite well."

The team's members, who were chosen through an application and interview process last spring, spend a minimum of 40 hours working on the project each week. While a significant portion of that time is spent in a laboratory, the students are also working on putting together a website and preparing their presentation.

The team's trips to the regional and international competitions are paid for, but the students do not receive stipends for their summer work.

"The funding we have goes toward the project," said Csicsery, "but this experience is valuable enough to all of us that it's worth working full time, anyway."

To find more information on the team and to follow its progress, visit

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