NDC Synthetic Biology

The Notre Dame Collegiate High School Synthetic Biology team are currently working on discovering if Oxybenzone is present in sunscreen. Submitted

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Notre Dame Collegiate High School has several talented and gifted students. One particular group, the NDC Synthetic Biology team had a scientific article published on Biotreks http://biotreks.org/e201903/.

BioTreks is the first international synthetic biology journal to be authored and reviewed by high school students. The journal is intended to give participating students the valuable experiences of writing and evaluating scientific papers, while offering them opportunities to share their own synthetic biology ideas, techniques, and results in a professionally edited, online publication (info obtained from BioTreks).

The ideas and journals posted are from students from all over North America.

The group of 12 students at NDC (two from Grades 10-12, and the other 10 from Grades 7-9) meet after school like any extracurricular activity and they discuss and experiment synthetic biology. They are supervised by Science/Math Teacher, Jessica Larocque.

What exactly is synthetic biology?

It involves engineering and science – taking living organisms (bacteria, yeast) and engineering them to solve problems.

“The ability to modify and create DNA has gotten much easier over the past few years/decades and on our team we put together plasmids (circular DNA that gives bacteria abilities) and insert them into E. coli so that it can perform a specific task,” said Larocque.

“Last year, that task was to breakdown fat, and this year we hope to detect oxybenzone in sunscreen.”

The team was formed at NDC after Larocque attended a teacher convention three or four years ago, that talked about how to genetically engineer bacteria in the classrooms.

“I was obsessed with science and right away wanted to bring this to NDC,” she said.

“The NDC Synthetic Biology team is made possible with the support of MindFuel’s geekStarter program and other local businesses and organizations – thank you,” said Larocque.

After three years of doing experiments, last year, the team was invited to Boston to present on their findings at a local college.

Daisy Hagens, Mya George, and Miguel Lepatourel are three members of the current NDC Synthetic Biology team and they love being a part of it.

These students are gaining very valuable qualities being a part of this team.

“They are learning leadership and teamwork skills, they learn about technology, about problem-solving, perseverance and also public speaking, because they have to make a website, and present on their findings,” said Larocque.

Daisy Hagens spoke of the current project they are working on.

“The project we are leaning towards is an Oxybenzone detector,” she said.

“This is a chemical found in sunscreens. It can have negative health effects, so we are looking to make that Oxybenzone is at safe levels for consumption. So we’re having a bacteria that can detect the amount of Oxybenzone.”

“We have a bacteria with an estrogen receptor, so depending how much Oxybenzone binds with it, we can determine how much Oxybenzone is present.”

The students said they believe through research the Oxybenzone binds with the estrogen receptor. This is just one example that these young and brilliant scientific minds go through as part of being on the synthetic biology team.

How did this current project begin?

“We start off with a lot of idea generation and talking with our mentors on how we can do this,” said Mya George.

“There is a lot of testing, lab work and trial and error.”

In order to continue on with their findings, sometimes they have to wait a week, depending on how the bacteria reacts and then they have to go back and re-test to find the results they are looking for.

There is a sense of accomplishment and excitement when the team makes a breakthrough.

“It’s incredible,” said George.

“I’m so proud of where our team has gotten to and what we have been able to do and along the way it has been a lot of fun.”

Miguel Lepatourel enjoys meeting up with the other Synthetic Biology groups from others school and he spoke on that.

“We let them know our results and we also get information at these jamborees or meet ups,” he said.

“Technically, we share information and if what we find is useful, we can implement that knowledge into our tests.”

Jessica Larocque’s is proud of the Synthetic Biology team at her school and she is looking forward to see what team’s research leads to.