Dan Tarjan

Reinventing Life: The Strange and Wondrous Science of Biological Technology

Dan Tarjan (College ’10)

Last summer in a Gilmer Hall lab, Dan Tarjan (pictured above, left) and a team of fellow undergraduates created a new living organism.

Using buckets of ice, vials of bacteria and “BioBricks”—strings of DNA manufactured in California—they altered the genetic code of E. coli so the bacteria would absorb arsenic.

“What we made are tiny machines; they’re devices,” says Tarjan (College ’10), the team leader. “Synthetic biology is figuring out what different pieces of DNA do so that they can be reassembled in new ways to create new functions.”

The team brought its “arsenic scrubbers” to iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition at MIT, where the invention vied for awards against 110 other teams that had created new living things. A team from Italy tailored bacteria to efficiently turn waste from dairy products into ethanol that could be used as fuel. A team from Canada concocted bacteria that would transform sugars people eat into indigestible cellulose in the digestive tract, which could make people thinner.

The motivation for students like Tarjan to build living machines is not only to win awards but also to help solve real-world problems. The UVA team won gold at the MIT competition by demonstrating that their creation absorbed arsenic and had potential applications in places like Bangladesh, where groundwater is often poisoned with arsenic.

The competition is evidence that bioengineering, once the purview of only the most sophisticated labs, is now within the reach of college students. And UVA alumni are helping University students grasp these exciting opportunities.

In particular, a generous gift from Linwood A. “Chip” Lacy Jr. (Engineering ’67, Darden ’69) supported the work of the Virginia Genetically Engineering Machine team. Mr. Lacy’s gift of $2.5 million to the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science—he majored in chemical engineering at UVA—includes $500,000 for program support and equipment for the Engineering School’s Experiential Learning Program and $1 million toward construction of a building to house engineering student projects.

His gift is transforming the Engineering School’s ability to offer students robust experiential learning experiences vital to the education of engineers.

And these experiences may lead to important new discoveries.

“Synthetic biology is a new field, the tools are still fairly rudimentary, the process is tedious and we often resort to a trial-and-error approach,” says Tarjan. “But it holds tremendous promise to solve big problems. That’s what I want to do.”

— By Sierra Bellows