The U.S. Military Academy at West Point Department of Chemistry and Life Science fielded an International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) Team that competed in the annual iGEM Giant Jamboree competition in Boston, MA from November 9-13, 2017.
The USMA-West Point team presented their work titled "Detecting chemicals with engineered olfactory receptors through microelectrode array readings" and were awarded a Bronze Medal for their engineered DNA construct, a wiki webpage, three nights of poster presentations, and a final oral defense and presentation.
The team, composed of Cadets Jason Hug (Life Science, 2018), Zach Andersen (Life Science, 2018), Kylor Kiesewetter (Life Science, 2018), James Pruneski (Mathematics, 2019), Alanna Appel (Psychology, 2020), Liz Huuki (Life Science, 2020), Matt McDonough (Life Science, 2020), and Channah Mills (Life Science, 2020), was inspired by bomb-sniffing dogs and the desire to provide warfighters technology to avoid putting the dogs and their handlers in harm's way.
In the nose there are molecular sensors used to detect and discriminate thousands of possible odors. Humans have over four hundred of these olfactory receptors, while animals such as dogs and rats have close to 1,000 that when arranged in different combinations may detect trillions of different smells. To demonstrate their idea, the USMA-West Point team genetically engineered human olfactory receptor DNA sequences into mouse neuronal cells to produce a biological sensor system.
The team demonstrated the function of their system using advanced light microscopy in Bartlett Hall's Photonics Research Center and electric field measurements using an advanced Field Potential instrument in the Center for Molecular Science, the research arm of the Department of Chemistry and Life Science, while developing a microfluidic device at the Naval Research Laboratory.
Jason Hug, a Firstie who has been involved with the team for over a year, said it was thrilling to take part in an international event.
"The Giant Jamboree was a great experience to share our work with researchers from all over the world," Hug said. "The culmination of all the hard work that has been put into this project has made me appreciate our work even more, and it was nice to have some closure to what we do in lab every day."
Additionally, Zach Andersen, a Firstie who helped develop the engineered DNA sequence, said he was ready to attend the Jamboree.
"Discussing our project to individuals during the poster presentation allowed me to fully appreciate our research," Andersen said. "Teams from all over the world seemed to be genuinely interested in our project."
Yearling Channah Mills gained significant research experience during the last two academic semesters.
"I feel like I have a better understanding of our work," Mills said. "Before the Jamboree I didn't understand how each piece of our project connected since we each work on specific components of the project. But giving a platform talk and talking about the project at the poster sessions bridged the team's work together for me."
Due to the extent of the project, work was conducted during the spring and fall 2017 semesters. Additionally, cadets conducted an Academic Individual Advanced Development (IAD-A) opportunity at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in the Chemistry Division and BioEnergy & BioFabrication over the summer in Washington, DC under the guidance of Dr. R. Kirk Pirlo (Government Chief Technology Officer at Advanced Tissue Biofabrication Manufacturing Innovation Institute) and Dr. Joel Gaston.
The IAD-A cadet team worked with DoD scientists and civilian undergraduates to develop a secondary device that created a continuous fluid flow across a layer of cells on an engineered microelectrode array. The system was 3D printed to help eliminate the need to exchange media and allows for a simple method of introducing chemical samples.
Yearling Matt McDonough was one of the cadets who was part of the IAD-A opportunity.
"The experience at NRL was a unique academic experience," McDonough said. "I learned a lot about bioengineering and interdisciplinary research while at the Naval Research Labs. I'm glad the work we conducted with Dr. Pirlo was able to be presented at the Giant Jamboree and helped us receive a bronze medal."
The spirit of iGEM is more than scientific research which forces student driven teams to expose themselves to other aspects involved in bioengineering.
A major component of the iGEM competition is integration of human practices, which examines how the team's research benefits the world and conversely how the world benefits the team's research. The USMA-West Point team integrated human practices into their project by conducting interviews with COL David Barnes, PhD, a senior West Point faculty member in the Department of English and Philosophy to discuss the ethics of synthetic biology in warfare.
The team integrated public policy into their project by discussing synthetic biology and science with Congressman Morris Brooks from Alabama, District 5, and Congressman Steven Womack from Arkansas, District 3, in an effort to socialize the responsible use of biotechnology and genetic engineering efforts.
However, the primary human practices integration of the research is demonstrated by the fundamental problem it attempts to address: the work was funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the Office of Naval Research (ONR), organizations looking to develop a hand-held sensor device that can be easily used by a Warfighter to detect compounds and residue traditionally detected using military working dogs.
Additionally, the team collaborated with another iGEM team from Manhattan College-Riverdale, by practicing their presentation at USMA and sharing transformed biological material for an Interlaboratory study. The iGEM InterLab Study measured the replicability of fluorescent measurements from Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) expressing cells. The results are planned to be published as an open access journal article in PLoS ONE where the USMA-West Point team will be recognized as contributors and authors.
And lastly, the team conducted educational outreach during the 2017 Soldier Design Competition as well as competing in the 2017 Mid-Hudson Valley Business Competition where they placed 1st in the Advanced Technology Track.
The team plans to continue the research during the spring academic semester to improve their device as a new piece of Soldier hardware and to engineer specific plasmids. The team will present their work at the 2018 Soldier Design Competition and will present their work at 2018 USMA's Project Day. Rapid detection of biological material can be applied to several areas of operation interest such as defense, security, force protection, Special Forces, Homeland Security, and medical & health capacities.
The team is advised by Dr. Alex Mitropoulos, Dr. J. Ken Wickiser, Dr. John Cave, and Dr. Kamil Woronowicz in the Department of Chemistry and Life Science and Department of Mathematical Sciences.