The Biosynthetic Jamboree

(October 27th, 2015) “And the winner is…” The world’s biggest synthetic biology contest, the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition, ended last month in Boston. The discoveries are now waiting to be transformed into start-up companies or full research projects.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition is now the world’s largest contest in synthetic biology. Originally, it started out as a summer course at MIT in 2003. The concept: student teams are presented with a DNA distribution kit that includes five plates containing plasmid backbones. The teams are asked to design their own methods and ideas about how to solve world-leading health problems, improve people’s life conditions, or simply come up with discoveries that can help make the world a better place. In its 12th edition, the Giant Jamboree competition has seen many bright minds coming together with industry officials and even the FBI agency!

But winners had to be picked and here are the results:

Undergraduate Division:
Grand Prize: William and Mary, Characterization of promoter-driven transcriptional noise in E. coli
1st Runner-up: Team Czech Republic, Developing IOD band: a general diagnostic test for early detection and mapping of tumour mobility
2nd Runner-up: Team Heidelberg, Exploiting functional nucleic acids for numerous applications

Overgraduate Division:
Grand Prize: Team TU Delft, 3D Printing of Bacterial Biofilms
1st Runner-up: Team BGU Israel, A synthetic machine based on the CRISPR/Cas9 system for cancer therapy

High School Track:
Grand Prize: Team TAS Taipei, A method to prevent tissue damage from chronic inflammation

Roland Eils, supervisor of the Heidelberg team, which came in third, says: “iGEM is the most exciting teaching experience that allows us to interact with talented, creative and hard-working students. For the students, it is the best teaching experience in their entire undergraduate training. Despite being a lot of work, it usually pays off because we make very interesting discoveries in a rather short time and in a field we as instructors have never worked before. It is certainly a very intense experience, but not only the high level of science but also the fun in exploring entirely new research directions is highly rewarding.”

The discovery made by the Heidelberg team, for example, might revolutionise molecular biology. Roland relates, “Our project dealt with the use of functional nucleic acids in various applications ranging from mRNA modification to sensing small molecules and proteins. The core of our project was two software tools we developed, which allow us to design small RNA and DNA sequences that specifically bind a ligand (aptamers), and to stitch these together with other sequences that have a catalytic function (DNAzymes). Notably, one of our software tools replaced a state-of-the-art, highly time-consuming experimental selection process by predicting new aptamers in silico. The most exciting idea we had was to use a DNA sequence that can create a chemiluminescent signal in combination with a short stretch of DNA that selectively binds a protein of interest to perform cheap and fast western blotting! We call this an aptabody, which is a cheap alternative to an antibody. Aptabodies can be designed and rapidly prototyped in silico without the need of animal testing and laborious experimental approaches used nowadays routinely for the production of antibodies. Everyone will be able to perform this technique spending way less than they currently do. This will allow access to this widely used method also for high schools and educational labs as well as for community labs.”

Although the competition between the 259 international teams was harsh, many who did not make it to the finals received medals in recognition of their creative thinking. For example, the University of Edinburgh team developed a paper-based sensor for measuring drug concentration, like heroin. Another team, from the University of British Columbia, found a way to protect beehives from the harming effects of pesticides. Their idea was to genetically modify the microbes that colonise the bee’s digestive tract. The GM microbes are then able to digest the pesticides without harming the bees themselves. Because bees are social and communicate with other bees within the beehive, the microbes will colonise most of the hive.

Besides designing biomachines in living cells, students and their supervisors are required to report any future environmental or health danger their discoveries might have. This ensures that participating teams are aware of environmental sustainability as well as feasibility of their projects.

Year in, year out, the iGEM Competition sets students’ brains working overtime but the rewards are obvious. Participating students will not only expand their knowledge horizon, they will also meet like-minded people and see the results of their work being applied in practice. I, for one, am certainly looking forward to the discoveries to be made next summer. How about you?

Nadejda Capatina

Image: iGEM

Last Changes: 12.07.2015