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Students Design Genetically Enhanced Probiotic that Treats Heart Disease

‘Plaque Attack’ wins silver medal at iGEM Giant Jamboree, an international competition that challenges students to create new applications of synthetic biology.

Alma's iGEM team.Alma's iGEM team.

The Alma College iGEM team, competing for the first time at an international synthetic biology competition in Boston, came home with a silver medal for a project that uses genetic engineering to treat heart disease.

The acronym “iGEM” stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine. The non-profit iGEM Foundation sponsors the annual iGEM Giant Jamboree that brings together more than 6,000 participants to explore and create new applications of synthetic biology.

Alma’s student team presented “Plaque Attack,” a project that sought to develop a counteracting bacterium to degrade Trimethylamine, or TMA, which promotes plaque formation in arteries. The team designed a probiotic bacterium that contains TMA-degrading enzymes.

“Eating a lot of red meat can lead to TMA accumulation, which is a risk factor for atherosclerosis, a type of cardiovascular disease that occurs when arteries become inflamed, plaques are formed and blood flow is restricted,” says Devin Camenares, assistant professor of biochemistry and iGEM coordinator. “The team designed a genetically enhanced probiotic that degrades TMA before it is absorbed into the bloodstream.”

Presenting to the judges.Presenting to the judges.The annual iGEM competition challenges students to reprogram a living system to produce a useful behavior and solve a real-world problem. Beyond the technology, jamboree participants are evaluated on teamwork, responsibility, entrepreneurship, safety and more. Gold, silver and bronze medals are given to projects that fulfill certain requirements.

“Teams are required to create a website and poster and give an oral presentation,” says Camenares. “On stage, in front of more than 100 people, students Madison Hibbs, Kaleb Ramon and David Viguilla gave a 20-minute presentation and answered questions from the judges.

“One of the reasons our project stood out is that the students did excellent work for the outreach component, in which team members consulted with experts in the field and with educators on how to use synthetic biology in high schools to promote STEM education,” says Camenares.

Participating students described the iGEM Jamboree and the competition preparation as a “once in a lifetime experience.”

“My experience at the jamboree was awesome,” says Ramon. “It felt great to be able to represent Alma College in such a positive way and to be able to get such a good reception from those who judged the outcome of our overall project. I’m glad I was able to be a part of Alma’s first-ever team, and I plan to continue to do my part to help this amazing program grow.”

Whitney Miller with Alma's poster.Whitney Miller with Alma's poster.The competition promotes collaboration across academic disciplines — from the sciences to new media studies. Students use their presentation, website management and design skills to demonstrate how science matters locally and globally.

“This experience taught me how to work with peers who are in different fields toward a central goal,” says Whitney Miller, who was the team’s graphic designer. “Being a part of iGEM has been essential to my future as a graphic designer. It also was surreal that my work was seen by thousands of people from all over the world at the jamboree.”

Camenares encourages students who are interested in joining next year’s team to contact him.

“I’m proud that our very first iGEM team earned a silver medal at the competition,” says Camenares. “No other Midwest team earned a gold medal, leading us to favor the phrase ‘Best in the Midwest.’ I am excited about the prospects of building on this success for next year’s competition.”

“Plaque Attack” presenters:
  • Madison Hibbs, Whitmore Lake sophomore
  • Kaleb Ramon, Mount Pleasant junior
  • David Viguilla, Roscommon senior
Project contributors:
  • Chloe Bower, Grand Rapids junior
  • Jacob Carbary, Shelby Township senior
  • Alexis Downing, Rose City senior
  • Dustin George, Ithaca 2019 graduate
  • Michael Hallada, Howard City senior
  • Nathan Haut, Midland senior
  • Abigail Killian, Traverse City sophomore
  • Colleen Loftus, Plainwell junior
  • Alex Martinez, Buchanan 2019 graduate
  • Whitney Miller, Sparta senior
  • Aryaan Misra, first-year international student
  • Keara Parker, Hudsonville 2019 graduate
  • Brianna Ricker, Bay City senior
  • Damon Rogers, Detroit senior
  • Steven Sowa, Allen Park senior
  • Kelsey Taylor, Plymouth junior
  • Maria Valoto, first-year student from Londrina, Brazil
  • John Vusich, Perrinton 2019 graduate
  • Jacob Wilburn, Pinckney first-year student
  • Emily Wood, Midland sophomore
Story published on November 08, 2019