Synthetic bio student team turns fry oil into plant food, wins a medal

CSU iGEM joined hundreds of other student teams competing in September’s 2015 Giant Jamboree, where they won a silver medal. 

Out of the fryer and into a … plant? Colorado State University student researchers have invented a low-cost method for transforming used fry oil – dumped or recycled by restaurants by the gallon – into a valuable plant hormone chock-full of energy molecules.

The students, members of CSU’s Synthetic Biology Club, took their project, “Z. coli,” to the 2015 Giant Jamboree, where they won a silver medal last month. Held in Boston this year, the jamboree annually invites student teams to showcase their synthetic biology projects. The competition is hosted by the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) Foundation, which also lends its name to CSU’s team: CSU iGEM.

The silver medal was a first for CSU iGEM, which has somewhat reinvented itself in the last year, according to Olivia Smith, co-team leader and senior biochemistry major.

“This was the first year we were competitive, that we really had something solid to present,” Smith said. “To have performed well at the competition was really exciting.”

Transforming used fry oil

The Z. coli project started with a hypothesis that spent fry oil, which restaurants often pay to dispose of, could be used in a bioreactor to make a valuable product. Using E. coli bacteria as a host, the students worked out a synthetic pathway that grows on the molecules found in the oil and produces trans-zeatin. Trans-zeatin, a commercially available plant hormone that sells for about $5,000 per gram, is normally extracted from plants in a method that’s more complex and expensive than this new approach.

E. coli bacteria are widely used in the synthetic biology world to engineer cells and products with various functions. It’s a workhorse biological host that’s easy to manipulate, and it comes cheap, which is why the students decided to use it.

The students have filed a provisional patent through CSU Ventures on their Z. coli method, so they can continue exploring whether the idea could net some commercial value down the road, according to Smith.

“This is really hard research, and it’s something, not to say impossible, but it’s a challenge, and our team came up with the idea on our own,” Smith said.

Smith added that the team’s faculty advisor, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Christie Peebles, has been a key part of their success. “It’s really important to have a mentor that cares about what you’re doing and wants you to succeed,” Smith said.

Student-driven research is at the heart of what CSU iGEM is all about, according to Peebles.

“The research is entirely student-led and driven, which is a unique opportunity for the students at CSU,” Peebles said.

As Smith and senior co-leader Adriana Collings pass the torch to new leadership, younger members will create their own projects.

Recruiting new members

The synthetic biology team is eagerly seeking new members, which they hope can span a wide range of colleges and disciplines in a relatively new field that’s naturally multidisciplinary. The team has majors from the colleges of Engineering, Natural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

For information on how to join, email Find them on Twitter, too: CSU_iGEM.