The iGEM 2016 results are in! The world’s largest synthetic biology competition took place in Boston from the 24th to the 31st of October, and European teams took home the grand prizes in two of the three tiers, Postgraduate, Undergraduate and High School. The winners and their projects are listed below.
Originally launched by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the iGEM Competition has been held annually since 2004 to encourage students to create, innovate and develop projects in synthetic biology. It attracts students from a wide range of academic backgrounds, ranging from engineering to the humanities.
While this all might make synbio sound like a toy, it’s an exciting new area in biotech with the potential to solve major issues in public health, society, and the environment. Moreover, the market is expected to reach €33.4Bn by 2022. This year’s winners are making their mark on the field with project goals ranging from saving avocados to the entire practice of Chinese medicine. Check them out here!
Grand Prize: Imperial College – “Ecolibrium”
Imperial College’s team aimed to develop a framework for engineering co-cultures through their project, “Ecolibrium.” A huge stumbling block in the growth of bacteria is that different strains tend to not be able to co-exist in the same dish. To solve this problem, Imperial undertook the development of a Genetically Engineered Artificial Ratio (GEAR) system that it hopes will control population ratios in cultures. As the team describes, it “will employ a bi-directional communication system and novel RNA control that can be implemented across different bacterial strains.” The next step will be to develop accompanying software to manage and optimize the cultures with the eventual goal of distributing the technology for biocomputing and bioprocessing.
1st Runner Up: Sydney, Australia – “FRES(H)”
Save the avocados! According to Avocados Australia, the most perilous point in their lives is when they sit on store shelves for prospective buyers to squeeze as they test their ripeness. But how else can we determine if an avocado is ready? The Sydney team introduced a ripeness-sensing sticker, “FRES(H),” packed with E. coli that read the ethylene production levels as a proxy for readiness. The sticker can even be calibrated to adjust for different levels of ethylene.
2nd Runner Up: SCAU China – “aSTARice”
This team from China is exploring ways to mass produce astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant with vast potential in medicine and healthcare. The current method of obtaining it in large quantities is through its extraction from microalgae and crustaceans, but the extraction is neither safe nor sustainable. With this in mind, the team used a technique called multiple-gene metabolic engineering to modify rice endosperm to become a bioreactor of the molecule.
Grand Prize: LMU-TUM Munich – “rethINK”
Munich’s team took on the organ shortage through a new approach to bioprinting tissues for medicine with a modified 3D printer. The machine served as a platform to manufacture multi-cellular structures in a user-definable fashion from an ink based on the rapid and specific interaction between biotin and its binding partner, streptavidin. Munich was able to explore different cellular circuits to control pancreatic cells, induce tissue vascularization and install biosafety mechanisms in printed tissues.
1st Runner Up: Wageningen UR – “Saving Honeybees from Varroa Destructor”
Bee populations around the world are under threat from a mite known as Varroa, and Wageningen UR is proposing to fight the blight with bacteria that produce a highly specific toxin. After consulting bee-keepers, the team built a model system in which the bacteria colonize a hive and produce the toxin continuously to stave off the mites and eliminate the need for continuous dosage.
Taking Chinese Medicine also comes with the risk of ingesting heavy metals or other toxins, and consumers are consequently shying away from the practice. Current methods to detect the poisons are often too expensive or inconvenient for the average consumer. As an answer, the high school team from Taiwan created a series of cheap user-friendly biosensors based on E. coli: when they detect a certain poison, they produce a fluorescent protein that would be visibly detectable. Moreover, the intensity of the fluorescence reflects the levels of the poison. The team hopes that the production of what would become a widely available test will encourage people to continue to taking Chinese Medicine.
Congratulations to this year’s winners!
Images from Integrated DNA Technologies for the iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight