Students strive to give bees a chance

Peninsula grad part of UBC science team taking part in international competition.

Darren Christy

A South Surrey native is among a group of science students in Boston this week, competing on an international stage with a project designed to help honeybees.

Darren Christy, a Semiahmoo Secondary grad and third-year biochemistry student at UBC, is part of a team participating in a competition hosted by iGEM – the Internationally Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation – which will include more than 200 teams from post-secondary institutions around the world.

Christy’s team, made up of 20 engineering and science students, was formed in February, and after researching a few project ideas, the group decided upon the issue of pesticides and pollinators.

Studying the serious decline in bee colonies, know as Colony Collapse Disorder, that has been taking place over the past 10 years, the group aimed to find a way to protect bees from pesticides known to have toxic effects on the insects.

“One of the things that came up was although pesticides do have a bad rap, they are critically important for modern agriculture,” Christy, 19, told Peace Arch News this week. “So our project was to use synthetic biology to bridge the gap between allowing pesticides to still be used while allowing primary pollinators to still be protected.”

The team spent several months over the spring and summer developing a probiotic for bees – which they dubbed a “probeeotic.”

By identifying a species of bacteria that lives in the digestive systems of honeybees, the students have attempted to genetically engineer the bacteria to break down neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide that has been linked to bee death.

Christy said he is thrilled to be travelling to the iGEM competition this week and showcasing the group’s project, and is excited to see what the other teams have come up with.

“I’m really looking forward to meeting students from around the world and hearing their experiences and accomplishments,” he said. “This whole experience has been amazing, being an undergraduate student and having the opportunity to help develop and carry out a science project that could potentially benefit the world is awesome.”

In addition to the hands-on lab work Christy took part in, the project also included community outreach and fundraising components, which gave the students a glimpse into the side of science they don’t normally get to see in a classroom or laboratory setting.

“We had to do all the fundraising for the project, and basically keep track of everything we bought for it,” Christy explained. “It was really interesting to see how expensive science is, and how many components there are to it.”

Upon returning from the competition, which wraps up Monday, Christy plans to buckle down and continue his studies – while he has no concrete career plans, he said he is leaning towards medical microbiology or med school.

He said the experience with the iGEM project and teammates has been a valuable one.

“I’ve gained a lot of perspective on the complexity of the issues surrounding Colony Collapse Disorder and the importance of not only bees, but also pesticides to modern agriculture,” he said.

To find out more about the project, visit http://2015.igem.org/Team:British_Columbia

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