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Wed Jul 01 14:47:20 SAST 2015

SA student science team 'tweets' bacteria

RETHA GROBBELAAR | 26 September, 2011 01:04
E. coli (EHEC) bacteria
Image by: AFP

Social networking sites Facebook and Twitter have inspired five students at the University of the Witwatersrand to take on the world with "tweeting" bacteria that could help fight cancer.

The team will compete with its concept, Bio-Tweet, against 180 teams from around the world at the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition.

The annual synthetic biology competition is hosted in the US by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The team of fourth-year and honours students from the health sciences, science and engineering faculties has taken the E.coli bacterium, present in human stomachs, and redesigned it to act as a marker for specific substances. When the bacteria encounter the substance, they change colour.

The students, working with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, have discovered a way of enabling different types of bacterium to communicate with each other after one has detected a substance and to respond by performing a task.

Team member Sasha Reznichenko said social networking sites had inspired their idea.

Team adviser Michelle Robinson said the technology could mean that bacteria might locate cancerous cells in the body and tell other bacteria to kill these cells.

The team - Reznichenko, Ezio Fok, Natasia Kruger, Gloria Hlongwane and Bradley Marques - has spent 80 hours a week in the laboratory since June.

Kruger said they were "sometimes in the lab for 14 hours a day".

"We haven't had a life. We've got to know each other well."

The team is the only one from South Africa but there are two other African teams: from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya.

They leave for Amsterdam on Thursday for the European regional competition in which about 50 teams will vie for 18 places in the finals in November.

Robinson said the team was not intimidated by competitors from top universities such as Harvard and Yale in the US.

"There's no reason we should be intimidated by Cambridge. It's not like they make them smarter there. It's about working hard."

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