Challenge 5

Rapid Inexpensive Production of the RNA Extraction Reagents and RT-PCR Enzymes Needed to Conduct the Most Often Used Test for COVID-19 Infection

Currently, RT-PCR (Reverse Transcription – Polymerase Chain Reaction) is the best way to determine if a person has COVID-19, in part because other available tests are typically not able to fully distinguish the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 from influenza or the other dozen or so respiratory bugs that are circulating this time of year. But biotechnology companies producing RT-PCR reagents could not and did not predict the incredible surge in demand for the reagents required for this RT-PCR test. As a result, these reagents are currently in extremely short supply. You can help.

The first step in this assay is to separate out the RNA from everything else in the sample — human cells, proteins, enzymes — that might degrade or interfere in the analysis of the viral genetic code one needs to detect. This is called RNA extraction, and the reagents needed for it are in short supply. (Re-)Learn how this extraction process works and what reagents are required.

Once the RNA has been purified, it is subjected to RT-PCR in an assay that has been designed to act on and amplify specific segments of the COVID-19 viral genome. Two enzymes — a reverse transcriptase and a thermostable DNA polymerase such as Taq polymerase — are essential to the ability of this RT-PCR based assay to amplify a single copy of the targeted viral message into the millions of copies of cDNA needed to detect viral infection in a patient.

The focus of this challenge is therefore to provide deployable ideas as to how Chemical and Biological Engineers can mobilize to rapidly and cost-effectively produce the key reagents and enzymes needed by our health-care providers to rapidly expand the number of people at-risk who receive a RT-PCR test for COVID-19 infection.

Who Can Compete: All UG Students in the Chemical and Biological Engineering Program
What and Where Do You Submit: A PDF proposal and engineering justification of no more than 5 pages
When is it Due: May 15, 2020 by 5 pm
To Whom Do I submit: Louise Creagh ( and James (Jamie) Piret (
What is the Prize: $100 VISA gift card