York biologist coaches another winning biotech challenge team

Four Grade 10 students coached by York Professor Logan Donaldson, of the Department of Biology in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, are headed to the finals of a national biotech competition in Ottawa on May 11. It is the second time in three years that one of Donaldson’s teams has reached the finals.

Logan DonaldsonAfter winning the Greater Toronto Area regional competition of the Aventis Biotech Challenge, held April 21 at the Ontario Science Centre, students Jasmine Tsang, Julie Yu, Derek Wong and Jason Leung will put their project up against those of winning teams from 12 other regions across Canada.

Right: Logan Donaldson

The four students, from University of Toronto Schools, worked for four months with Donaldson on their project to improve heat tolerance in plants and will share a $2,500 cash prize with their school and a $2,500 scholarship to either York or the University of Toronto.

The team was successful in genetically modifying an enzyme called “activase” in Antarctic Hairgrass. The long-range goal of their research was to enhance the ability of plants to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

While plants use carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, they can only use a limited amount and that amount decreases as temperatures rise, explained Leung. To overcome this, he and his teammates planned to genetically enhance the ability of a plant to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

First they investigated the role that a key plant enzyme called RubisCo activase played in controlling a plant’s ability to use more carbon dioxide under warmer temperatures. They learned that the enzyme begins to break down under increasing heat. To prevent the breakdown or denaturing of the enzyme, the students decided to strengthen it by adding a gene through genetic modification.

UTS winning teamThe modification worked, allowing the plant to thrive under higher temperatures than normal. Ultimately this research opens the door to enhancing the ability of plants to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Left: From left, Jasmine Tsang, Julie Yu, Derek Wong and Jason Leung

“It was inconceivable 10 months ago that we could change the denaturing temperature of a plant,” Leung said. “I didn’t even know what a denaturing temperature was back then. Thanks to our great mentor, it’s been surprising what we’ve been able to accomplish.” 

The national finals will be held via video conference. Each first-place regional team will present their research to a panel of judges gathered at the National Research Council headquarters in Ottawa. The winning team from the national competition goes to Philadelphia in June to compete against US teams at BIO 2005, the world’s largest gathering of biotechnology leaders.

The results of the national competition will be Web cast, live, from the National Research Council headquarters in Ottawa on May 12, 2005, at 1pm. More information can be found at the Aventis Biotech Challenge Web site.