AUSTIN (KXAN) A group of students from the University of Texas at Austin are participating in an international biology competition known as iGEM. This requires them to come up with a creative solution to a problem that would benefit society.

The UT Austin iGEM 2022 team has embarked on a mission to protect the Texas Hill Country’s beloved bat population.

In 2020, the first signs of an infection were detected in the Texas Hill Country, threatening the bats that live under our iconic Austin Bat Bridge on Congress Avenue.

Keaton Brown is a senior at UT, majoring in biochemistry.

“We are using an organism called ADP1 to detect the environmental DNA left behind by White Nose Syndrome,” he said.

In the last 15 years, White Nose Syndrome has threatened North American bats, killing over 6 million bats and wiping out entire regional populations.

“White Nose Syndrome is a fungal infection that affects a bat,” UT sophomore Jeffrey Chuong explained. “It can cause them to lose their ability to hibernate properly and eventually lose their ability to fly.”

Jeffrey Barrick has been leading the Longhorns iGEM team since 2012. Each year, the molecular biosciences associate professor selects the best and brightest students to work on a groundbreaking project.

“It involves making presentations, movies, websites — a lot of things go into it,” he said. “It’s a really comprehensive experience.”

The team of 12 was selected late last year before they began working on their research throughout the spring and summer.

This year they’re tackling the challenge of detecting WNS through ADP1, a bacteria capable of taking up DNA directly from the environment.

“It basically swaps out their DNA in a way that turns on a signal that we can detect,” Barrick said.

According to the group, current tech tracking the deadly disease is slow and sometimes inaccurate.

“We want to be able to map out the origins of White Nose Syndrome,” Chuong said.

At the end of October, the team of 12 will present their work and findings at the iGEM Grand Jamboree. Yet for these undergrad students, it’s more than just a competition.

“To give bat conservationists another tool that they can use in monitoring the spread of White Nose Syndrome,” Brown concluded.

Over the past decade, this group has come up with several groundbreaking projects that have made a major impact on our community.

Last year, they came up with a creative way to measure the amount of caffeine in a sample of coffee or tea. Last March, the group presented those findings during a demonstration at South by Southwest.

To learn more about their efforts and how you can help out, you can visit their website.