University of Washington students create anthrax destroying protein

Students from the University of Washington took home a first-place prize from an international genetic engineering competition for developing an anthrax destroying protein and engineering a type of E. coli that targets harmful bacteria.

The 14-student team is comprised of students that are mostly majoring in biology or biology-related fields. They placed first in the Health and Medicine division of the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition for their design of these non-traditional antibiotics, according to

The iGEM competition involves students from around the world and was developed to advance the field of synthetic biology by challenging participants to design and build systems in living cells.

“They were tasked with coming up with a cool idea for what you could do with engineered life forms, and then actually building some aspect of that,” Eric Klavins, team faculty adviser and an electrical engineering assistant professor, said, reports.

The undergraduates, who were led by faculty advisors and graduate students, set out to engineer microbes with the intent of developing a new type of antibiotic. One group within the team designed and built the anthrax-destroying protein while the other group re-engineered E. coli to target and destroy dangerous microbes without disturbing healthy cells.

The U.S. Army’s Medical Institute for Infectious Diseases is already testing the anthrax destroying protein to see if it could be useful in the field.

“Twentieth-century antibiotics like penicillin have been very powerful, but they’re starting to have problems as resistance gets really common,” Chris Eiben, a biology major on the project, said, reports. “We’re starting to have to use harsher antibiotics that are more detrimental to people. We wanted to start bringing proteins and microbes into the fold and see how that worked.”

The majority of the team’s work was done on a small budget over the summer months. They generally worked 10 hour days to get ready for the November 6 start of iGEM at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At the competition, the team presented their findings in front of a panel of industry-expert judges and an audience of several hundred people, reports. They competed against 139 teams from around the world and were one of only two U.S. teams to win category specific awards.