North Carolina High School Student Wins Biotechnology Research Competition

San Diego (June 18, 2008) – After a talent search that spanned the U.S., Canada and Western Australia, the winner of the 2008 sanofi-aventis International BioGENEius Challenge was announced this afternoon at the BIO International Convention:  Mingjuan Zhang, 18, a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Durham, N.C.

Ms. Zhang’s project was titled “Characterization of a Synthetic Microbial Pathway for the Production of Bioplastics.”  Petroleum-made plastic has two serious downsides: Its cost is rising with that of its key ingredient, and it does not biodegrade.  Zhang is one of the researchers lighting the way toward a new era of bioplastics, made using plants or microbes.  These new plastics are biodegradable, and may have other desirable material properties.  Unfortunately, though, even with rising petroleum costs, these plastics often remain uncompetitive.  As Zhang’s report notes, the bioplastic PHA—which can be produced in bacteria—costs almost $6/kg to produce, versus 20¢/kg for the petroleum-based polypropylene.

Mingjuan sought optimize PHA production in the common bacteria Escherichia coli.  PHA is composed of a brittle substance called 3HB and an elastic material called 4HB.  Figuring out how to maximize the amount of 4HB while maintaining high overall plastic yield was the ultimate goal.  Mingjuan built and characterized the plastic pathway in E. coli using mathematical, computational and experimental methods.  Among other things, she identified an enzyme target that could significantly reduce the costs in the production process. 

As the BioGENEius Challenge first-place winner, Ms. Zhang will receive an award of $7,500.  S/he was one of 16 finalists, representing six U.S. regions, Western Australia (for the first time this year) and Canada. They presented their research this week to a panel of distinguished scientists, educators, and biotechnology leaders who chose first- through fourth-place winners.  All competitors displayed their research for the estimated 20,000 BIO Convention attendees.

“Every year this competition gets more intense and exciting, and this year we’re thrilled to see so many young scientists putting forth high caliber research projects that provide potential solutions to real-world problems,” said Allan Jarvis, Ph.D., Vice President, Corporate Development, sanofi pasteur, the vaccines division of sanofi-aventis. “This type of scholastic cutting-edge research is at the very roots of what the biotechnology industry is all about.” 

“We at sanofi-aventis congratulate Mingjuan,” Jarvis added. “She exemplifies the spirit of discovery, analysis, experimentation and perseverance that is key to solving the important problems that we now face in health care, agriculture, energy and manufacturing.”

About the BioGENEius Challenge

The sanofi-aventis International BioGENEius Challenge is an annual competition for high school students who demonstrate an exemplary understanding of biotechnology through scientific research projects.  Students compete in regional and national challenges, and finalists compete at the BIO International Convention.  At both the regional and international competitions, students are not only evaluated on the quality of their research and display, but also on their responses to questions relating to their scientific knowledge and potential commercial applications of their research.

In addition to the first-place prize of $7,500, second place will receive $5,000; $2,500 is awarded to third place, and fourth-place receives $1,000. Each remaining participant will receive an honorable mention award and $500.

The prestigious sanofi-aventis International BioGENEius Challenge is a Biotechnology Institute initiative in collaboration with sanofi-aventis and sanofi pasteur. This initiative has grown to national and international prominence out of the Aventis Biotech Challenge (ABC) and BioGENEius Award, which owe their beginnings to the 1994 Biotechnology Industry Organization’s (BIO) International Convention.

Sanofi-aventis, one of the world’s leading biopharmaceutical companies, has supported the BioGENEius Challenge since its inception in 1994. Additional support for the BioGENEius Challenge is provided by National Sponsors Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Ernst & Young, and Sangamo BioSciences.

About the Biotechnology Institute
The Biotechnology Institute is an independent, national nonprofit organization dedicated to education about the present and future impact of biotechnology. Its mission is to engage, excite and educate the public, particularly students and teachers, about biotechnology and its immense potential for solving human health, food and environmental problems. For more information, visit

Upcoming BIO Events

     BIO International Convention
     June 17-20, 2008
     San Diego, CA

   Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy
    Sept. 10-12, 2008
    Vancouver, BC

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   October 29-31, 2008
   San Francisco, CA

  BIO-Europe 2008

   November 17-19, 2008
   Mannheim/Heidelberg, Germany,




About BIO

BIO represents more than 1,200 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across the United States and in more than 30 other nations. BIO members are involved in the research and development of innovative healthcare, agricultural, industrial and environmental biotechnology products. BIO also produces the BIO International Convention, the world’s largest gathering of the biotechnology industry, along with industry-leading investor and partnering meetings held around the world.