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A lot of Imagination. Plenty More Action.
Year One students' "Super-bug Elimination" Project wins Gold Medal at Int’l Competition

Let's for a second bring yourself back to the movie "The Matrix"…

Imagine your body is the Matrix, it’s under attack by numerous Agent Smith (harmful bacteria). You need to find Neo (a friendly bacteria) and transform him into "The One" (combat master who could eliminate Agent Smith) …

In this case, the Agent Smith of our body is Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) - a species of bacteria that can cause a lot of serious health problems such as diarrhea, sepsis and toxic shock syndrome. If left untreated, the infection may be fatal. Until recently antibiotics still seemed to be the only effective treatment but unfortunately recent findings show that S. aureus has already formed resistance to antibiotics. It may turn into multiple antibiotics-resistant "superbug".

After watching "The Matrix" one day, Rory Li, a first-year student of the Molecular Biomedical Sciences Program at HKUST, and a member of the University’s team in the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition 2010 (iGEM 2010), came up with an alternative idea to treat S. aureus infection… He imagined human body was “the Matrix” and it was infected by the deadly S. aureus like Agent Smith. The body needs a superhero Neo to act as "the One" to eliminate the bad Agent Smith and ultimately restore the Matrix. The problem is - who… or more precisely, what, would act as Neo – the One?

Rory and the HKUST iGEM 2010 team comprising 15 undergraduate students from multiple disciplines, led by Prof King Chow from the Division of Life Science, sought to identify something that can cast as Neo in human body — and they found Lactobacillus - a friendly bacteria that you would find in some health drinks, like Yakult. Lactobacilli can live happily in our body and sometimes even supply us with health- potentiating (probiotic) effects. The team pondered the possibility of using Lactobacilli as Neo to eliminate Agent Smith - S. aureus, — a "super-bug elimination” project.

The HKUST iGEM team constructed a plan to transform Lactobacillus species with a similar detector capable of sensing S. aureus attacks. These Lactobacillus bacteria would in turn react by releasing an RIP (RNAIII-inhibiting peptide) — a small protein able to effectively put the S. aureus attack on hold and attenuate the infectious ability of S. aureus — to eliminate the deadly bacteria and treat infections.

Put it more simply, Neo tunes to Agent Smith’s channel and send him/them misleading signals. This will stop them from communicating with each other and disabled them from initiating any kind of attack. This novel idea was submitted to the iGEM 2010 committee under the medical track and the team won the Gold Medal at iGEM 2010 held at MIT in the US in November 2010.

HKUST has been participating the iGEM competition for three years, winning medal every year. HKUST will host iGEM 2011’s Asia Regional Jamboree on October 15-16, 2011. More information will be updated in: