Casey Ager is pretty sure his former classmates at Ferris High School would call him a nerd, but that’s all right with him. He’s now an undergraduate at the University of Washington and as part of a team of 20 undergraduates and six graduate students, he helped take home the top award in the International Genetically Engineered Machine World Championship Competition – iGEM – last weekend.
“We still can’t believe it,” said Ager on the phone from UW. “Usually it’s a school from Europe or Asia who wins the top prize.”
There were 65 teams entered in the competition, which was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The four finalists selected were MIT, Imperial College London, ZJU-China and UW.
“An international panel of judges awarded the University of Washington the grand prize, the first time a team from the United States has won the award,” said Ager, who graduated from Ferris in 2009.
iGEM is a synthetic biology competition. Ager explained that his team did a lot of DNA cloning to get the desired results.
“That means we cut and pasted DNA sequences together so they can perform a new function,” said Ager.
But not to worry: the DNA is from bacteria and can’t survive on its own outside of a test tube.
“No, no, it’s nothing like that movie, ‘Contagion,’ ” said Ager, laughing. “Safety is a huge priority.”
The team came up with two projects:
The first project cloned bacteria so they could produce diesel fuel from sugar.
“This is not biodiesel, it’s essentially the same product as the diesel you get at the gas station, but made by bacteria,” said Ager.
The second project developed an enzyme that could be taken as a pill to help gluten-intolerant people break down gluten in the stomach.
“There is a treatment like this in clinical trials right now, but that enzyme doesn’t work in the acidic conditions in the stomach,” said Ager. “Our enzyme does.” Millions of people with gluten intolerance could benefit from such a pill, but much more research and many more trials would have to be completed before the pill could become a reality.
Ager, who’s a junior, is planning on going to graduate school, aiming for a doctorate in biochemistry research.
“I just think this stuff is fascinating,” he said.
The team didn’t win money or scholarships from the contest, and they all did the research needed over the summer without pay.
“In early spring, we started brainstorming what would be interesting problems to work on, knowing that we only had summer to do the work,” said Ager. “Ideally, we’d like to find a cure for cancer, but that would take a lot longer than a summer.”
He said winning the top award at iGEM will be a great résumé builder and it’s been an incredible experience. It’s rare for undergraduate students to be able to do all the research and learn all the techniques necessary to complete projects like these – and then present them to a panel of judges from all over the world.
“It’s been wonderful. We are still floating on cloud nine,” he said. “It’s something that’s setting the stage for my future and for the future of the other kids on the team.”