Aug. 11, 2021

UCalgary iGEM innovators push the boundaries of synthetic biology in the lab and beyond

From food systems to planetary health, we celebrate the work of these undergraduates on International Youth Day
iGem team photo
The iGEM team is a multidisciplinary group of undergraduates that collaborate on synthetic biology projects and compete internationally. iGEM team

Diligently building solutions to challenges facing the world, a roster of University of Calgary student-led teams have been advancing the frontiers of synthetic biology since 2007.

These multidisciplinary groups of undergraduates have been competing in iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines), a worldwide competition that gives youth the opportunity to create biology projects and push the boundaries of synthetic biology by tackling everyday issues. They come together to collaborate from across faculties including the Faculty of Science, the Schulich School of Engineering and the Cumming School of Medicine.

A sensor resembling a home-pregnancy test for detecting E. coli in cattle; a collection of solutions to help the canola oil industry alleviate the green seed problem; and a homegrown yeast supplement to address the growing worldwide vitamin A deficiency (VAD) problem are but a handful of the challenges and innovations that young UCalgary minds have tackled over the ages.

UCalgary celebrates the young innovators who are, and have been, part of the iGEM Calgary team in recognition of International Youth Day on Aug. 12, 2021. This year’s theme is “Transforming Food Systems: Youth Innovation for Human and Planetary Health,” which highlights the importance of meaningful participation of young people in such a global effort.

Transforming food systems

Allison Guthrie, a third year plant biology major, was part of the 2020 iGEM Calgary team that developed an edible vitamin A supplement named Oviita.

“We learned that vitamin A deficiency is the cause of many deaths and health problems in some developing countries due to lack of access and infrastructure,” says Guthrie who, inspired by advances of technologies like the gene-editing technique, CRISPR, has had a longstanding interest in genetic engineering.

“We wanted to create a vitamin A-rich food additive that could be grown and maintained locally in communities to ensure a reliable, uninterrupted supply of nutrition that didn’t depend on ongoing support infrastructure,” she says.

Vitamin A helps the immune system function properly, making low vitamin A one of the leading causes of preventable childhood blindness and mortality. According to the World Health Organization, in 2020, 250 million children were estimated to be suffering from VAD, with higher prevalence in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where diets may be nutritionally lacking.

Oviita was developed by the iGEM Calgary team so that communities could grow the nutritional supplement themselves inside a bioreactor using as an energy source material such as rice husks and other plant and agricultural waste. It uses a food-safe yeast strain called Y. lipolytica that has been engineered to produce beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. It can then be added to food or used in cooking to improve nutritional quality.

The Oviita project earned a gold medal at the 2020 iGEM Jamboree and was also nominated for five special awards (Integrated Human Practices, Measurement, Hardware, Entrepreneurship and Sustainability). In March 2021, the team also won Best Pitch at the MindFuel Tech Futures Challenge.

My hope for Oviita is that it might be picked up in the future, either as another UCalgary iGEM team project or as an independent graduate student project,” says Dr. Mayi Arcellana-Panlilio, PhD'93, a senior instructor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Cumming School of Medicine and lead faculty mentor for UCalgary’s iGEM team.

“It has a lot of potential as a community-based approach to alleviating vitamin A deficiency,” she says, with preliminary work on Oviita now finished and the 2021 team focusing on the upcoming iGEM competition.

From vitamin A deficiencies to rare earth elements

“This year, iGEM Calgary is seeking to create an improved method of recovering and recycling rare earth elements from electronic waste,” says Guthrie, who is in her second year of iGEM.

She explains that rare earth elements (REEs) are essential components in electronics such as phones, car batteries and computers. However, they are harmful to the environment, their mining is hazardous, and current practices make recycling them difficult and impractical.

“We are seeking to create a system that uses acid-producing bacteria to dissolve electronic waste metal, and the protein lanmodulin to separate and extract REEs so that they can be recovered,” Guthrie says. “We hope that our solution will create a safer, more ecofriendly and economically viable alternative to conventional methods.”

Fostering the next generation of researchers

The iGEM Calgary team provides young innovators with the unique opportunity to lead their own research. Under the mentorship of Arcellana-Panlilio and a small group of supervisors, the team is responsible for identifying the problems they will address and developing a solution through consultation, modelling and experimentation.

“This year’s team of students are a highly motivated, resilient group of students who’ve been deliberate about striving to create and sustain community, even with the constraints imposed upon them by the (COVID-19) pandemic,” Arcellana-Panlilio says.

As a mentor she believes that, given the freedom to be creative and the environment to achieve, students are happiest when they are able to fulfil their potential.

This past July, iGEM Calgary was awarded a $2,500 iGEM Impact Grant to help take their projects to the next level.

“I’ve learned more in iGEM than I think I could ever learn from any class,” says Guthrie. “We have to plan ahead, react to new circumstances, decide our own priorities and do our own troubleshooting when things inevitably go wrong. That’s a skill that can’t easily be captured in a classroom, and it’s one I’m incredibly grateful to have a chance to develop. More importantly, I’ve had to learn how to think like a scientist.”

If you’re an undergraduate student driven to tackle world challenges, and want to learn more about what synthetic biology can do and how you can join the University of Calgary’s iGEM team, visit

The iGEM Calgary team is funded and supported by the offices of the Provost and Vice-President (Research), and the home faculties of the Schulich School of Engineering, the Faculty of Science and the Cumming School of Medicine. iGEM is also grateful for the support from MindFuelGenome AlbertaIDEAS FundBME Summer Research StudentshipsProgram for Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE)Alberta Innovates Summer Research StudentshipO’Brien Centre Summer Studentships (OCSS), and for Giving Day 2021.