One project created enzymes that could convert sugar into diesel fuel. The other engineered bacteria that could help people digest gluten. Both projects constitute cutting-edge science. They came from a team of undergraduate students at the University of Washington.

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One project created enzymes that could convert sugar into diesel fuel.

The other engineered bacteria that could help people digest gluten.

Both projects constitute cutting-edge science. They came from a team of undergraduate students at the University of Washington.

The projects garnered the team — and the university — a world-championship prize Monday at an annual competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The event was organized by the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, an event first started in 2004. It featured 60 teams from across the globe.

Last month in Indianapolis, the UW team won a regional competition of the Americas, and advanced to the finals with 20 other teams, as well as finalists from Europe and Asia.

“Today, they were incredibly humbled,” said Sally James of the UW’s Office of News and Information.

The UW students edged teams from Imperial College of London, MIT and China, according to the competition’s website. The UW also tied with other universities for “best poster” and “best food or energy project.”

Team members were flying back to Seattle on Monday evening and couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

The team included 23 students, not all of whom took part in the weekend event at MIT. They worked for months, spending hundreds of hours in university labs, James said.

To win the competition, the UW team had to create a Wiki site explaining their projects, plus a poster. The team had about 20 minutes to present their research to a panel of judges.

Students could focus on any projects they liked in the realm of “synthetic biology,” a field similar to genetic engineering. UW students chose to make more efficient biofuels, building two enzymes that could be put into bacteria to convert sugar into diesel fuel.

“That’s amazing,” said Eric Klavins, a team adviser and associate professor in the UW’s electrical-engineering department.

The students also built an enzyme that helps humans digest gluten, a protein in wheat and other grains that some people cannot tolerate. The team was advised by several graduate students and led by Justin Siegel, a doctoral student in biochemistry. The competition may ultimately lead to better, more useful products for people. Results of the student teams are available for other researchers to use, Klavins said, and are called “BioBricks.”

Other projects in this year’s competition included the creation of bacteria designed to promote plant growth in the driest parts of the world. Another created cells designed to generate fuel, food and medicine on another planet — and that could be carried by space travelers in a test tube.

In the past, a team created E. coli with the scent of bananas and mint, according to Klavins.

When the first genetically engineered machine competition was held, only a few schools took part. This year 160 teams entered, showing the field’s growing popularity with students and researchers.

“This area of making new things using biology is just getting more and more exciting all the time,” said adviser David Baker, a professor in the School of Medicine’s biochemistry department.

Jeff Hodson: 206-464-2109 or jhodson@seattletimes.com