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The University of Lethbridge iGEM overgrad winning team of the 2013 North American iGEM Regional Jamboree pose for a photo at the University of Toronto. From left to right: Dustin Smith, 22; Gaeme Glaister, 25; Jenna Friedt, 25; Suneet Kharey, 22; Zack Stinson, 24; and faculty adviser Hans-Joachim Wieden, 44. The team won the top prize at a synthetic biology competition on Oct. 6, 2013.Philip Cheung/The Globe and Mail

If you want to succeed in the scientific revolution of the future, it helps to think about life as a computer program.

That strategy helped University of Lethbridge students walk away with the top prize in a synthetic biology competition Sunday. Often touted as the genetic equivalent of the personal computer revolution, synthetic biology involves thinking about cells as programmable machines that can be designed and built to suit a particular need – whether it's mass producing a vaccine or breaking down a hazardous chemical in the environment.

The five member Lethbridge team came up with a way to modify how cells translate genetic information into proteins. Rather than one bit of DNA carrying the information to make one protein – the usual way cells go about their business – the method involves inserting a genetic command that jiggles a cell's translational machinery while it's in mid-operation, coaxing it to produce two proteins out of the same DNA input.

"We started off with a computer analogy – kind of like zipping your files together – so you'd zip two protein sequences together and therefore save space," said Jenna Friedt, a graduate student in biochemistry at Lethbridge.

The method doesn't solve one particular problem but rather it's a tool that could be taken up by other researchers to further their work – in keeping with the mission to accelerate innovation by making the fruits of the competition freely available. Since tailor-made proteins serve a wide array of potential applications, from making medicines to biofuels, the team's method could point the way to making protein-based applications more efficient. For example, it could allow a cell to make a useful protein in tandem with a second protein that acts as a marker to help researchers see whether the useful protein is doing what it was designed to do.

Organizers said teams from campuses across the the United States and Canada gathered at the University of Toronto over the weekend for the North American regional "jamboree" of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Several winners, including four other Canadian teams, will now face off against European, Asian and Latin American rivals during the global round of the competition to be held in Boston in November.

Although science contests are nothing new, iGEM – launched a decade ago by a group of MIT professors – carries more weight than most. Since synthetic biology is a relatively new and rapidly evolving arena, student projects can have genuine impact on frontline research and winners can be swiftly snapped up into graduate programs or spin off companies to try to leverage the latest discoveries and tools.

Tom Knight, an iGEM founder and a self-described "DNA hacker" with Boston-based Gingko Bioworks, said the strength of the competition is that it gives participants a chance to do cutting edge research and present original ideas rather than put these activities on hold until they've earned their first degrees.

"The message is you don't have to wait," Dr. Knight said. "You can do great things while you're learning."

Lethbridge is the only Canadian team to rank first in North America since the expanding global competition was divided into separate regional competitions, starting in 2011. A University of Calgary team won first runner up this year in a younger age category. And in June a Lethbridge team won the first ever high-school version of the competition.

Organizers said the conspicuous success of Albertans at iGEM this year is due in no small part to a provincial government innovation program that supports teams heading to the prestigious competition.

"With just a few extra things provided to these students – more than just money – it can really make a big impact," said Jennifer Hill, who oversees the effort for Alberta Innovates Technology Futures.

Ms. Hill said that in addition to some provincial funding, the Alberta teams at iGEM receive training in workshop and presentation skills, project management and business planning – and a chance to meet in advance with an iGEM judge to better understand what it takes to win.

"Now we're five years into this program and you can see the results," she said.

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