A team of undergraduate students from Pakistan have won a silver medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition (iGEM) which took place in Boston between November 9 and November 13. The team, known as iGEM Peshawar 2017, was also nominated for the Best Biosafety Award at the competition.
iGEM is the largest synthetic biology competition in the world. More than 300 international teams competed in the event this year.
The team from Pakistan comprised of a diverse group of young scientists from Lahore, Attock, Islamabad, Multan, Faisalabad, Khyber Agency, Nowshera, Charsadda, Peshawar, Swabi and Mardan. Students who were able to travel to the United States and represent the iGEM Peshawar team included Muhammad Dawood, Ushma Farooq, Hassan Raza, Hassnain Oasim, Ayesha Khan and Babar Nawaz.
The team secured second place for their Project F which deals with the problem of heavy-metal contamination in Pakistan’s water resources. The students developed a ‘reporter fish’ which can detect heavy metal contamination in freshwater and change the color of its body in response to it. The team had designed and built the genetic (DNA) circuits needed for this function and tested them in bacterial cells.
iGEM Peshawar also designed and developed MAX – a digital interface for the biosensor system. MAX is an Arduino-based digital component which can be used by bacterial cells to automatically send the end-user – say a fish farmer – text alerts via mobile phone.
Dr. Faisal Khan, the supervisor of the team, said that the students had put in a lot of effort to secure the second place. He said he hoped that the Pakistani industry would collaborate with them in the 2018 championship.
Talking to MIT Technology Review Pakistan, he said, “The team chose this project because of the prevalence of arsenic in our water. We believe this will help fish farmers save their farms and also keep our food safe.”
The iGEM Peshawar team was trained by Dr. Khan at the Institute of Integrative Biosciences, CECOS University in Peshawar and supported by the Directorate of Science and Technology, Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
This is the second time a Pakistani team has competed in the event. Last year, a team of students from Peshawar won a bronze medal at the championship for their project on a BioSensor device that could be used to detect the levels of carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen in vehicle exhausts.