A team from Harriton High School in Rosemont, Penn., took first place in the National Science Olympiad Protein Modeling Event at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln May 15 and 16. The victory earns each of the team’s three students a $10,000 scholarship every year for four years to attend Milwaukee School of Engineering, if they choose to apply to the university and are accepted.

Tim Herman, Ph.D., director of the MSOE Center for BioMolecular Modeling (CBM), presented the scholarships to Sarah Root, Dayita Sharma and Jamie Song during the awards ceremony. The CBM founded the Science Olympiad Protein Modeling Event and continues to be a national sponsor.

“Each year the students raise the bar a little higher in terms of the quality of the models they create,” said Herman. “That was certainly the case this year.”

Science Olympiad features nearly two dozen team events. In the Protein Modeling Event, students must prove they understand basic features of protein structure, use online visualization tools to explore and manipulate protein structures, and create 3-D physical models of proteins using foam-covered wire.

The 2015 national Protein Modeling Event challenge was to model a fragment of the CRISPR Cas9 protein that is being used to edit the human genome. Cas9 is a bacterial DNA nuclease enzyme that naturally functions in bacteria to protect them from invading viruses. Many researchers have recently modified the CRISPR/Cas9 system to be useful in gene-editing.

Sixty high school teams competed in the national challenge. More than 4,200 teams took part in invitational, regional and state protein modeling event competitions, also focused on gene-editing proteins.

The challenge for the 2015-16 school year will involve the sepiapterin reductase enzyme, which is needed to make neurotransmitters. A mutation in the gene that encodes this protein was identified by whole genome sequencing in 2010, leading to a molecular diagnosis and successful treatment of California twins with gene variants causing them to have life-threatening low levels of three neurotransmitters.