College of Arts and Sciences students help team win gold at international competition

Florida State University's iGem team introduced a multipart solution designed to heal trees damaged by citrus greening.

Florida State University has taken home the gold! A team of students from the university recently competed and won big during the 2019 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston.

The event is hosted by the iGEM Foundation, an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology, education and competition, and the development of an open community and collaboration. Each year, iGEM teams from high schools, universities and community labs around the world set out to find solutions to complex scientific problems and present their ideas on the world stage.

The five-day event kicked off last month with more than 350 teams registered in the competition and over 6,000 participants in attendance.

For this year’s project, FSU’s iGEM team took on Florida’s citrus greening epidemic — an issue impacting 80 percent of the Sunshine State’s citrus trees. The team introduced FLOEMA, a wetware, hardware, and software solution designed to heal affected trees.

The project includes three levels of functionality: a Therapy Management Subsystem that provides assistance to citrus growers on the frequency and level of antimicrobial therapy needed for tree health; an injector-catheter device called FloRx that can be used to access a citrus tree's phloem and deliver the antimicrobial therapy; and Antimicrobial Cocktails, composed of three antimicrobial peptides that eliminate Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus, the bacteria that causes greening, while guarding against the emergence of resistant strains.

Of the 52 U.S. collegiate teams competing, FSU was one of only eight to be awarded a gold medal and the first Florida team to take home the honor.

“It was a great win for the 2019 FSU iGEM team and for the FSU community,” said Cesar A. Rodriguez, an FSU research faculty member with the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the College of Medicine, who helped cofound the university’s iGEM program in 2017. “It took a village!”

Rodriguez said the victory is a testament not only to the talent being fostered at Florida State, but to the promising future of synthetic biology.

“We have the opportunity to create a world where we can use biological systems to produce, in a sustainable manner, most of the materials needed in modern life,” Rodriguez said. “The 2019 FSU iGEM team demonstrated that the FSU community can contribute to the revolution with excellence in empathy, curiosity and ingenuity.”

Of the 15 undergraduates on FSU’s iGEM team, 11 hail from departments in the FSU College of Arts and Sciences, including:

  • Cameron Conroy – computer science and statistics
  • Jacob Gottlieb – biological science
  • Jessie Griesheimer – biological science and criminology 
  • Kathleen McClellan – biological science  
  • Roderick Meyer – biological science 
  • Mezindia Blessing Nkembo – biological science
  • Derica Parathundil – biological science
  • Hannah Pascoe – biological science
  • Conner Quinlan – biochemistry
  • Nicholas Vazquez – biological science 
  • Juan-Martin Portilla – biological science

Other FSU students involved in the project include Shams Dhanani (mechanical engineering), Alyssa Klein (chemical engineering), Jamal Youmas (commercial entrepreneurship) and Tyler Mitchell (marketing). Youmas and Mitchell served in advisory roles along with student advisers from the 2018 team, including Ian Schlander, Alexandra Kata, Ben Cynamon, Daniela Quijano, Arianna Sigalos and Michael Taylor.

Senior biology major Roderick Meyer was the team leader for this year’s project and was responsible for overlooking the team’s timeline progression and ensuring the successful cohesion of each interdisciplinary sub-team.

“While a majority of our team members were from the College of Arts and Sciences, working on a multidisciplinary team opens your eyes to the different ways people think. Managing and working in such a team encompasses so many creative and innovative ways of thinking, which is what I believe drives professional excellence forward,” Meyer said. “My greatest friendships were born through iGEM, and that is something for which I will be forever be grateful.”

For more information on the FSU iGEM team, visit https://2019.igem.org/Team:FSU.