Twelve of the best undergraduate students from across the country have gathered in Peshawar this summer to use the cutting-edge discipline of synthetic biology to solve one of the most pressing environmental challenges we face in Pakistan.
The students make Pakistan’s first team that will compete in the iGEM World Championship Jamboree in Boston, USA this Fall. iGEM or the international genetically engineered machines competition is a flagship student competition that started in MIT and has been happening for 15 years with 285 teams from across the globe in last year’s competition but with no participation from Pakistan.
‘Not any more!’ says Dr Faisal Khan, the Principal Investigator and Team Supervisor who is also the Director of the Institute of Integrative Biosciences at CECOS University, Peshawar. ‘We have been waiting for this moment to introduce synthetic biology in Pakistan and what better way then giving students the opportunity to do cutting-edge biotechnology research. We cannot be playing with ‘Windows95’ in an age of ‘Android’ and ‘iOS’ and we desperately needed this upgrade in life sciences in the country.’ he added.
The iGEM Peshawar team is working on a bio-based sensor that will detect poisonous gases in the air. It is based on a bacterial cell with genetic circuits made of synthetic DNA that the students designed and fabricated to produce different colors in response to the presence of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide or both.
‘This is a great proof of concept. If we can create a bio-sensor for these gases, we can in principle create biosensors for other uses like detecting adulterated milk, toxic metals in drinking water or even temperature-sensing devices’, said Dr Khan.
The team consists of 4 girls and 8 boys from across the country, including Karachi, Hyderabad, Lahore, Kalat, Swat, Charsadda, Waziristan, Mardan and Peshawar which makes it a great representative of biotech talent across the country.
The summer research also had a ‘human practices’ where the students looked into the ethical and social implications of their project by talking to different stakeholders and gathering insights that could be integrated into their project. Another fascinating side was the outreach and education efforts the iGEM team put in by visiting schools and colleges in and around their cities and leading mini-workshops on synthetic biology to share the latest with the students and inspire them to pick up science as a career.
‘We can’t be more grateful to the Directorate of Science and Technology, Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for their faith and support in propagating the emerging field of synthetic biology in the country.’ said Prof. Dr. Riaz A. Khattak, Vice Chancellor, CECOS University, Peshawar.
What iGEMers Say!
‘I feel very proud and lucky to be an iGEMer. It really makes you believe in yourself. And that the world is beyond grades and numbers’, Sidra Usman, 20, Peshawar.
‘I am proud to be pioneering synthetic biology in Pakistan though iGEM and at the same time feel the responsibility to impact the world with the power it grants’, Muhammad Ali, 22, Karachi.
‘For me iGEM is an opportunity to practice what I have learned in theories so far. Its like converting your imagination into reality. The best thing about it is that we are working to create something the is solving a real-life problem which is awesome’, Rabia Gul Dawar, 22, Peshawar.
‘iGEM has taught me a lot – from design and planning to execution and troubleshooting’, Mansoor Saleem, 20, Swat.