Vancouver teen's engineered bacteria wins him world competition

Austin Wang's genetically modified E. coli bacteria speeds up process of converting organic waste into electricity

VANCOUVER – A Vancouver student who won the top prize at the world’s largest high school competition says four years of doing experiments taught him that patience and passion are keys to success.

Austin Wang, 18, won a US$75,000 award for engineering genetically modified E. coli bacteria that speeds up the process of converting organic waste into electricity.

The Grade 12 student at David Thompson Secondary School competed against 1,700 students from 77 countries at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Ariz.

Wang’s love of science had him experimenting with hydrogen fuel cells in Grade 8 before he decided to switch paths and work with microbial fuel cells – devices that convert chemical energy into electrical energy.

“In Grade 9, I found that microbes can also do the same thing, they can also generate electricity in a fuel cell. I thought that was super, super cool.”

Wang said his research means that companies that treat sewage could eventually offset much of their energy requirements by using electricity generated by the microbes.

“In North America, it’s a big problem. We spend a lot of our energy treating water. But waste water actually contains a lot of energy, almost 10 times the energy we put into treating the waste water. So with microbial fuel cells we can turn a waste source into a massive energy source.”

Wang conducted his experiments at University of British Columbia biology labs with mentoring from two professors and help from PhD students as he tried to come up with a new way to solve the perplexing puzzle.

“Most research around microbial fuel cells is centred around finding some new material that the bacteria like better to generate more electricity but I kind of flipped it on his head and kind of said, ‘Instead of that why don’t we engineer a better bacteria?”’

Wang started by identifying a set of genes that can boost a bacteria’s performance and then used those genes to engineer a pool of genetically modified bacteria that could generate more electrical energy.

“I used this pool and I built an artificial biocell that could generate a substantial amount of power,” he said.

The challenges Wang faced along the way taught him some significant life lessons.

“The important thing is to be patient. The work that I’ve been doing started in Grade 9 and nothing came out of it for a few years but it was something I was passionate about. So in order to be patient you have to find something that you’re passionate about.”

He credits the support of his father, a locksmith, and his mother, a homemaker, for helping him nab the big award.

“I try to explain it to them so they understand,” he said of his research.

Wang’s high school science teacher, Andrew Chang, said his student’s knowledge in genetics has surpassed his own.

“I’ve just become a cheerleader at this point,” Chang said. “He’s been teaching me a lot about the current technology and where they’ve taken it.”

Wang, who last year won a Canada-wide science fair in Fredericton, N.B., plays basketball with his friends for fun while preparing to study engineering at Princeton this fall.

In Grade 10, he was among the winners of an international piano competition called Golden Key, and flew to Vienna for a recital of young composers.

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