Undergraduates Bring Diversity to the Lab and Help Develop Antivirus Treatments

Achievement date: 

Seven undergraduate students from ethnic and racial minorities currently underrepresented in healthcare and scientific research completed 2014 summer research internships in the Genetics Laboratory of Harvard University’s Medical School. The program is part of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (RET) program supported by the NSF-funded Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc), which is headquartered at the University of California (UC) Berkeley, and in which Harvard is a partner school.


The Harvard RET is a paid, ten-week summer research program that provides undergraduates with basic lab training and engages them in mentored research in synthetic biology. The 2014 students’ project—to radically recode the E. coli genome—is contributing to important scientific research in developing genomes that are resistant to multiple viruses.


Protein synthesis is a series of chemical reactions in which molecules are brought into contact with one another and chemical bonds are formed and broken. A codon is a sequence of three DNA or RNA nucleotides that corresponds with specific amino acids (biologically important organic compounds) or “stop signals” during protein synthesis. Each student participating in the 2014 program implemented more than 7000 codon reassignments in the process of building and testing a radically modified E .coli genome. (E. coli is a model organism in biological engineering.)

In their abstract submitted for the Genomic Science Contractors-Grantees Meeting XIII in early 2015, the students and their mentors wrote, “Why it is important to radically modify microbial genomes? (Because it is necessary) to develop multi-virus-resistant cells, enable efficient use of novel amino acids, and enforce genetic and metabolic isolation.”