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Three chemistry majors part of award-winning iGEM team

Three chemistry undergraduate majors, Valeriu Bortnov, Niko LeMieux and Srijay Rajan, were members of the University of Minnesota’s International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) team that recently won a gold medal and Best Environmental Track Award for developing an interdisciplinary approach to solving mercury contamination.

The iGEM competition brings together 250 international teams that develop a synthetic biology project over the course of four months. This year, projects were presented in Boston, at the largest gathering of synthetic biologists to date.

For this year’s competition, the UMN team built a biosensor and bioremediation device that incorporated the use of microbes encapsulated in novel silica Sol Gel technology within a water filtering column. The device was designed to facilitate the detection of mercury in the immediate environment and the detoxification of the neurotoxin methylmercury and hazardous mercury ions from the target site. Since mercury is a heavy metal with the ability to biomagnify, it is a significant issue in public health and environmental studies worldwide. Its levels are continually on the rise due to mining activities, the industrial use of mercury catalysts, mercurial fungicides in agriculture, and the burning of fossil fuels. This has resulted in the pollution of many marine ecosystems and water reservoirs worldwide, the cleanup of which, using current technology, is either not feasible or costly.

The Minnesota iGEM team’s aim was to overcome limitations by developing a scalable device to provide a sustainable and environmentally sound option for mercury decontamination. The technology developed by UMN undergraduates can be applied toward bioremediation and biosensing of various heavy metals and organic toxins in the environment. Minnesota iGEM conducted several cross-sectional studies and educational outreach events to develop a two way discourse between the researchers and the public to inform application and design of the final bioremediation device. Correspondence with ethics and industry experts allowed for the development of an intellectual design and public platform.

Minnesota iGEM's award-winning approach to solving mercury contamination was selected from a pool of 45 environmental track teams.

Read the Minnesota Daily Story

Read the College of Biological Sciences blog and watch the video