Student team makes bacteria sing

The USC International Genetically Engineered Machine team recently had its project sing its way to an award at the iGEM 2012 Americas West Jamboree hosted at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

In the project, titled E. Musici, the team stimulated E. coli bacteria with different environmental conditions to move its  flagella (whip-like tails) at a rate that translated into an audible frequency. The rate of flagella movement corresponds with the bacteria’s level of distress, which gave the bacteria the ability to respond to the scientists’ stimulation.

These sound waves created “music.” The team even created a music video that can be viewed on the iGEM website.

The team is composed of undergraduate students Megan Bernstein, Rachel Kohan, Ellen Park, Stephen Genyk, Eric Siryj, Luke Quinto, Kevin Le and Rebecca Gao. The students are studying a variety of different subjects related to biology, from biomedical engineering to biological sciences. Percy Genyk of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering served as a graduate student advisor, and Professor Sean Curran of the USC Davis School of Gerontology and the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences served as faculty advisor for the team.

“iGEM is basically an undergraduate synthetic biology team,” Bernstein, a junior majoring in biological sciences, said.

Percy Genyk said he decided to become an advisor to continue participating in iGEM in a different role.

“The year before I was part of the team and so I figured, especially since the team only had one veteran, it would be a great idea if I would step in as an advisor and show them all the ropes,” Genyk said.

The idea of having bacteria make music came about during a brainstorming session when students were encouraged to suggest any crazy but cool topics they thought up.

“As exciting as a project can be, it also has to be feasible,” Genyk said. “At first I didn’t know how they were going to do it, but they did it.”

Bernstein admitted that translating this idea into action wasn’t always easy.

“It took us a really long time in order to get these functioning parts, but we kind of pulled through in the last month and a half,” she said.

Colleges from all around the western United States, including Harvey Mudd College, University of Texas Austin, Colorado State, Colorado University Boulder, Arizona State, UC Davis and UC Berkeley, attended the competition. The event had two types of awards. The USC team won a gold medal, indicating that they achieved certain benchmarks specified in the judging criteria. These include creating a new BioBrick and improving the function of an additional BioBrick, helping another team and discussing a new approach to synthetic biology.

Bernstein believes that the team’s research can be useful to scientists in the future, as bacteria’s frequencies are based off of how they respond to their environment.

“If a researcher knows the type of bacteria they are using and they want to know if it’s happy, they can know the different frequencies,” Bernstein said.