Synthetic Biology in Action

Sometimes to solve a big problem, you have to think small. Molecular-level small.

That’s how the UNC Asheville students in the Synthetic Biology Club are tackling the ongoing issue of the biodegradation of a toxic chemical found in the CTS superfund site in south Asheville. They’re taking their research to the prestigious International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Jamboree in Boston in November, where they'll compete with other student scientists from around the globe.

“A lot of projects for iGEM are based on advancing the fundamentals of genetic engineering, like, how do you fine tune the expression of certain protein levels? Or, how do you make your assembly more efficient, or here’s a really theoretical thing that we could do that would improve the science as a whole,” said Nick White, a chemistry major and founding member of the Synthetic Biology Club.

“That stuff is really cool, and I think if you have the money you should go for it, but for us, picking something that affected the local community was a really strong motivator for a lot of people.”

That led White and the Synthetic Biology Club to the CTS superfund site in south Asheville, which has been contaminated with a toxic chemical known as trichloroethylene (TCE) for years--there is correlation between exposure to this chemical and cancer. Families nearby the CTS site have experienced health issues, and the cleanup of the site is an ongoing community issue.

The Synthetic Biology Club hopes to use specific proteins that can biodegrade TCE into a harmless compound, glyoxalate. It's a difficult task, one that requires the use of "BioBricks," which computer science major William Jackson described as LEGO bricks for DNA. All the teams participating in iGEM receive access to a BioBrick library to use for their projects--and they'll contribute their own bricks, as well.

"What’s cool about this as a whole is that basically everyone who’s come before you contributes to this large resource of Lego bricks, and then in your project you make new Lego bricks, and you submit the Lego bricks and it goes on," Jackson explained.

It's an interdisciplinary effort, with Jackson using his experience in computer science to model experiments.

"You can write computer programs that do it for you," Jackson said. "And there’s also quite a big push within certain bioinformatics and systems biology and synthetic biologists to codify it, and you’re going to be able to write computer code that runs biological processes."

Biology major Katie Brown supports the team effort by assisting with experiments and overseeing community outreach programs. "I appreciate how the iGEM competition stresses community connections," said Brown, who is an NC GlaxoSmithKline Foundation scholar and a student athlete on the women's swim team. "I believe it is important to use scientific insight to benefit the community and provide education to encourage the exchange of ideas."

Completing their project in time for the iGEM Jamboree in November is challenging, but worth the effort.

"Scientific pursuits rarely ensue without adversity; figuring out how to effectively execute the project has proved to be a challenge," Brown said. "However, there is nothing more rewarding than promising data and the feeling of progress being made. We have most certainly had our share of roadblocks, but the experience has made us all the more wiser and more capable."

The Jamboree is more than just an opportunity to present your work and compete, White explained.

"While it’s very fun to present your own projects, for us, I’m thinking about going into synthetic biology as a career, so meeting other students, other lab project investigators and potentially other biotech leaders, it’s very useful to see where the field is going," said White, who believes the experience has made him a better scientist, and a better leader.

The UNC Asheville Synthetic Biology club heads to the Jamboree in Boston on Nov. 9. For more information about the club, visit

photo by Emmanuel Figaro '18