Caption: Pakistani students celebrate after winning Silver Medal at an international competition. Photo via Facebook Image Credit:

Islamabad: Young Pakistani students have won a silver medal at a prestigious biology competition held in Boston, United States, in which 300 teams from 42 countries participated.

The students were awarded the prize at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition that took place between November 9 and 13.

The 10-member team, known as iGEM Peshawar 2017, comprised of a diverse group of young scientists from Lahore, Attock, Islamabad, Multan, Faisalabad, Khyber Agency, Nowshera, Charsadda, Peshawar, Swabi and Mardan.

However, only six of them were able to travel to the US. Mohammad Dawood, Ushma Farooq, Hassan Raza, Hassnain Qasim, Aisha Khan and Babar Nawaz represented the team in US.

The winning project, developed by Pakistani students, is a fish called ‘Reporter Fish’ made by building DNA circuits. This fish can detect metal-contaminated water by changing the colour of its body to caution those who are part of the fishing business.

“The project will have a direct impact on fish farmers and will also help to keep the fish in good health,” Dr Faisal Khan, who supervised the team and heads Cecos’s Biosciences lab, told media.

The team secured second place for their project, which deals with the problem of heavy-metal contamination in Pakistan’s water resources. The team also designed and developed a digital interface for the sensor system of the project, which will alert fish farmers through a mobile text message if any contaminated water has been detected.

“The team chose this project because of the prevalence of arsenic in our water. We believe this will help fish farmers save their farms and also keep our food safe,” Dr Khan was quoted as saying by MIT Technology Review Pakistan.

The iGEM Peshawar 2017 was hosted by the Institute of Integrative Biosciences of Cecos University of IT and Emerging Sciences Peshawar and supported by Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP)’s Directorate of Science and Technology.

“I am super proud of the team who put in a lot of effort to win us Silver. A lot of thanks to the Government of KP and Cecos University for the sponsorship and the all-out support throughout the competition this year,” said Dr Khan. “We hope our industry will join hands with us in IGEM 2018” he added.

“Winning the silver medal reflects that Pakistanis have ideas of fixing issues through bio synthetic ways. But they need to be supported by the government,” team member Hassan Raza said. He added that the project would help in combating the serious environmental issues of water contamination the world is experiencing.

The students believe their project will have a direct impact on the livelihoods of fish farmers and the health of fish consumers across the country.

This is the second time a Pakistani team has competed, and won, in the event. Last year, Peshawar students won a bronze medal at the contest for their project on a BioSensor device that could detect the levels of carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen in vehicle exhausts.

Each year iGEM hosts the largest global synthetic-biology competition with student-driven projects involving biology, mathematics, chemistry and engineering.

What is iGEM?

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation is the premiere student team competition in Synthetic Biology. Started in 2003 as an independent study course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it turned into a global competition with 300 teams in 2016, reaching 42 countries and over 5,000 participants.

For over 10 years, iGEM has been encouraging students to work together to solve real-world challenges by building genetically engineered biological systems with standard, interchangeable parts.