UBC undergrads attack plant disease using microscopic friends

With a booming biotech industry, students from all areas of study are wondering how they can get involved in the field and help make an innovative change. This year, the students of UBC iGEM are doing just that by trying to attack a globally relevant plant disease using our microscopic friends — bacteria.

So what is UBC iGEM?

Every year, UBC puts together a team of undergraduate students and graduate advisors from diverse backgrounds to compete at the annual iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition. This year’s team includes students from microbiology, biochemistry, computer science, chemical and biological engineering and even psychology.

Each team gets the opportunity to pitch and prove a novel synthetic biology idea and show what they have accomplished in terms of scientific innovation, entrepreneurship and/or social outreach. Past teams have built business plans to support their project ideas, run educational synthetic biology programs and collaborated with other iGEM teams from around the world.

The goal of these extracurriculars is to help educate the public about genetic engineering and prove that their team's idea will have an impact in and out of the science community.

This year, UBC’s team has decided to attack Crown Gall disease — a common plant disease causing tumors and root overgrowth in a variety of crops. This disease is especially problematic in enclosed spaces, such as greenhouses.

Crown Gall is caused by a bacterium called Agrobacterium, though the bacterium alone does not necessarily cause disease. However, it can easily become infectious by taking up specific circular pieces of DNA from the environment called plasmids. Once the bacteria has taken up the proper disease-causing plasmid, it can infect common crops such as tomato plants, peach trees, and even tobacco plants.

Mitch Syberg-Olsen, a member of UBC iGEM, explained, “[Agrobacterium is] a bacteria that is able to transfer this dangerous DNA into a plant cell, and force the plant to express those genes, which is absolutely crazy.”

Syberg-Olsen, along with team member Tamar Av-Shalom, further explained their plan to solve this problem.

“We are [engineering a new] plasmid that codes for scissors, that is going to spread through the Agrobacterium population and cut the bad plasmid, preventing the disease from spreading,” explained Mitch.

The “scissors” that he speaks of is a gene encoding CRISPR Cas9 — one of the newest tools in molecular biology. CRISPR Cas9 is able to target and cut specific sequences of DNA, making the DNA of interest non-functional in most cases. The hope is that by introducing a CRISPR Cas9 — that targets the disease-causing plasmid — to a pathogenic Agrobacterium, this bacterium will lose the bad plasmid, and no longer be able to infect the plant.

“Essentially, you can think about it like you’re vaccinating the bacteria from being able to infect the plant,” said Av-Shalom.

Sound complicated? Well, it is, which is what makes the fact that these undergraduates can do this science all the more exciting.

2017 UBC iGEM team
2017 UBC iGEM team Courtesy UBC iGEM

While doing research, the team found that not much research has actually been done on the topic of introducing a new plasmid to stop Agrobacterium infection.

According to Av-Shalom, “there are actually probably only maybe three to four labs worldwide that we’ve seen […] that are doing cellular biology with Agrobacterium. It’s cool, but it makes it hard.”

Currently, the team is working hard in the lab to finish their prototype for this year’s iGEM competition on November 13 in Boston, Massachusetts. When asked about the potential implications of their current project, Syberg-Olsen was optimistic.

“Even if our project isn’t perfect off the bat, if we can show that it has some sort of function, it is definitely going to be proof that at some point, this can work,” he said.

“We’re just undergrads doing this over a summer, so it’s not like we’re expecting this to be absolutely game changing, but it is unique. And I think that’s what’s cool about it; it’s something that makes sense but hasn’t been shown before.”