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Wilmington Charter School student competes in internationally acclaimed BioGENEius Challenge

Wilmington Charter School junior Conner Sweeney has been named one of 15 finalists for the BioGENEius Challenge.

Wilmington Charter School junior Connor Sweeney has been named one of 15 finalists for the BioGENEius Challenge, the premiere competition for high schools in cutting edge biotechnology research.


Starting Sunday and into next week, Sweeney will join other students from across the globe – and meet leading companies and researchers in the biotech industry – at the annual Bio International Convention.


Sweeney’s project focuses on plant communication, a topic that first drew his interest when gardening with his own family.


In his work at the Delaware BioTechnology Institute, he has examined how plants of the same species close in close proximity can relay messages to each other without physical connection.


He also looked into how the injury of a plant in a certain species can change the genetic sequencing of plants in the same species nearby.


“Specifically what I looked at was how the act of wounding one plant – wounding it in a way that would mimic being bit by an insect or a caterpillar – how that wounding causes the stressed out plant to release these signals known as volatile organic compounds that diffuse in the air and that nearby plants can detect," Sweeney said.


The volatile organic compounds -  or VOCs - help plants to grow deeper roots and activate new genes that allow them to thrive in toxic soils contaminated with aluminum.


“What my research specifically looked at was that these VOCs in the recipient plant cause that plants to grow more elaborate root strictures making it a larger plant that’s able to produce more fruit, but also changing that plant’s genetic sequence. Specifically it activated a gene that allows the plant to grow successfully in soil that’s contaminated with aluminum," Sweeney said.


Sweeney is excited to get back to the lab after the competition to further his research, but says he’d like to pursue a career that focuses on commercial applications of science.  


Specifically, he’d like to see how effective chemical signals of the VOCs released on the plants he’s researched could be if they were commercialized and used as a fertilizer to prime plants to grow in more toxic soils.

The winner of the BioGENEius Challenge will be released during the Bio International Convention’s Keynote address by actor Will Smith.

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