iGEM 2023: See what some teams are up to this year
The Takeaway: This year is the 20th annual iGEM Giant Jamboree, and teams from around the world are converging on Paris to show how they used synthetic biology to tackle problems at home and around the world. We asked some teams to show us what they were up to—and here is what they said.
The teams we spoke with include:
- AshesiGhana: Ashesi University in Berekuso, Ghana
- WageningenUR: Wageningen University & Research in Wageningen, Netherlands
- IFB-Gdansk: Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology at the University of Gdansk in Gdansk, Poland
- IGEM Freiburg: University of Freiburg—Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
- IISER-TVM: Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Thiruvananthapuram, in Thiruvananthapuram, India
- UNILausanne: Université de Lausanne in Vaud, Switzerland
- Exeter: Exeter University in Exeter, England, U.K.
- Cornell iGEM: Cornell Univeristy in Ithaca, New York
What inspired you to compete in iGEM?
AshesiGhana: iGEM provides a unique platform for interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation in the field of synthetic biology. We were excited to join a community of passionate individuals from around the world who share a common goal of applying scientific knowledge to address real-world challenges. Participating in iGEM also offers us an opportunity to apply our scientific and technical skills to a project with practical implications. iGEM inspired us to push the boundaries of our understanding and collaborate with like-minded individuals to create meaningful projects.
WageningenUR: Everyone on our team wanted to experience synthetic biology in a more hands-on approach. We wanted to test ourselves with a full-blown scientific project to solve real-life problems and have a positive impact on society.
IFB-Gdansk: Synthetic biology is a completely new concept for us, and the idea of using it to solve local problems and build functioning devices was exciting. The opportunity to share our ideas with such a large number of experts from diverse fields and to work together with iGEM teams from all over the world is unique.
iGEM Freiburg: iGEM offers a unique and rewarding experience in the field of synthetic biology and provides a valuable opportunity for personal and professional growth. Who wouldn't want to be part of such an amazing opportunity?
IISER-TVM: The thought of solving a local problem, showcasing it on a global stage, and getting the opportunity to break major myths and taboos existing in the current society was exciting enough to inspire us for an event like this. Also, apart from promoting research in synthetic biology, iGEM also provides an international platform for collaboration and networking. It is an immersive learning experience that presents the opportunity to interact extensively via various outreach events, get guidance for building a startup, learn to showcase a project using math modeling, and much more.
UNILausanne: Our motivation for participating in iGEM is the desire to apply our knowledge of biology to solve real-life situations. We believe that genetic engineering is a powerful tool and that our generation will see immense development in this field. We are very happy and excited to be part of this great breakthrough.
Exeter: We seek to get a real-world view of how interdisciplinary research is conducted, and the social science that needs to be incorporated into all aspects of this. Our team comprises a range of subjects and levels of study, and this has been hugely informative to our work, with each of us bringing different research methodologies, contacts, and diverse worldviews.
Cornell iGEM: We see the need to confront the rising cost of pharmaceuticals and make medicine more accessible to the general public.
What problem did you seek to solve?
AshesiGhana: The problem our project seeks to solve is the inefficient and environmentally damaging methods currently used for detecting, extracting, and recycling lithium. By leveraging engineered bacteria, our project aims to provide a faster and more sustainable approach to identifying lithium-rich areas in Ghana and extracting lithium from various sources, including spent lithium-ion batteries. Our goal is to revolutionize the lithium industry by promoting responsible resource utilization and contributing to a circular economy.
WageningenUR: Frost damage in fruit trees is becoming more common in spring as trees flower earlier due to generally warmer winters. The frost causes developed flowers to die because they are too exposed when a frost event happens. This causes huge losses in fruit production and has major impacts on fruit prices in countries impacted by late-spring frosts.
IFB-Gdansk: One of the most significant and dangerous groups of water pollutants is endocrinically active compounds (EDCs), a broad and quite diverse collection of exogenous chemical compounds that share negative effects on the endocrine system of animals and humans. We realize that EDCs are a drop in the ocean of problems caused by water pollution, but we believe that they should be approached comprehensively, hence our interest in a relatively narrow group of compounds. The goal of our project is to create a filter capable of degrading dibutyl phthalate (DBP) to benzoic acid and to carry out this process.
iGEM Freiburg: Genetic instability. While introducing plasmids into bacteria, the survival of the organism is dependent on the presence of antibiotic resistance in the plasmid. However, it may be that the plasmid introduction does not lead to the desired phenotype, suggesting that antibiotic resistance is no guarantee for bioproduction. We aim to make the survival of the cell dependent on the production of our desired product of interest.
IISER-TVM: Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a worldwide issue and currently its diagnosis mainly relies on clinical examination and subjective evaluation of depressive symptoms. No non-invasive, quantitative test is available today to diagnose MDD. We aim to build a blood-biomarker-based tool for diagnosing clinical depression and also determine the effectiveness of antidepressant treatment.
UNILausanne: Our team's project aims to trap and extract microplastics found in nature. The main targets of our project are the particles that flow through streams into lakes.
Exeter: Our project aims to solve the problem of indwelling catheters becoming chronically infected due to biofilm formation on their surfaces. These catheter-related infections are a huge negative factor on both the health industry's time and money, and are a source of anxiety in patients who require long-term catheterisation.
Cornell iGEM: Traditional chemical synthesis of methylxanthines, a class of compounds with various clinical applications, is expensive and not environmentally friendly. Therefore, we are proposing a new method of synthesizing two such methylxanthines (7-methylxanthine and paraxanthine) from caffeine using synthetic biology. We will engineer enzymes responsible for this conversion, encapsulate them, and place them in our reactor, where we feed in caffeine and produce desired methylxanthines. This could serve as a cost-effective and eco-friendly alternative to lower prices for certain pharmaceuticals.
What is the most surprising issue you uncovered during the course of your project?
AshesiGhana: The discovery that lithium can be found in brine, which is a soluble substance. This finding challenged our previous assumptions and opened new possibilities for extracting lithium using bacteria. We were also surprised at the realization that bacteria can be engineered to alter their behavior. This discovery expanded our understanding of the capabilities of bacteria and their potential applications in synthetic biology.
WageningenUR: We learned that farmers take different and often drastic measures to combat frost damage—some even burn car tires between the trees to warm them up.
IFB-Gdansk: We ran into a lot of issues previously unknown to us, including those related to fund management, planning and ordering DNA sequences, and biosafety. As for EDCs, we discovered that this was a newly discovered topic and there was no widespread research, only analysis of their presence in water and initial studies of their effects on humans and animals. Fortunately, we were able to find in the literature suitable enzymes capable of degrading our chosen compounds and we will try to check their activity.
IISER-TVM: After starting with the ideation process, we began our search for biomarkers linked to depression so as to get a correlation between the disease and the corresponding biomarker levels in blood. But to our surprise, we found that there are not enough studies on them yet. This was really shocking to us since suicides due to depression have been rising exponentially all across the globe due to a lack of proper diagnosis and support systems. There is a huge scope to work on this and make significant improvements in the mental healthcare industry if we have enough data and research on clinical depression.
UNILausanne: The thing that surprised us most during the course of our project is that nowadays there are still no filtering systems for these types of particles and they are free to reach lake ecosystems. Furthermore, despite the fact that the vast majority of these microplastics come from the abrasion of tires on roads, the water that is collected from the roads does not pass through any water treatment plant.
Exeter: Our initial idea revolved around disrupting the quorum sensing process integral to biofilm formation using RNA III inhibitory peptide (RIP), as we found literature suggesting this was a promising route. However, several weeks in, we discovered simultaneously via our modelling and conflicting literature that RIP may not even exist, and was a mislabelled byproduct of an entirely different process in the original literature, and has propagated through literature since then.
Cornell iGEM: One of the most surprising issues we uncovered was how chemical engineering concepts could be applied to bioengineering in creating the reactor which would synthesize our designed chemical using engineered enzymes.
What has been the most memorable part of your iGEM experience so far?
AshesiGhana: Some of the most memorable experiences so far included the "get to know each other" session we did on the first day, which helped us build connections and form a cohesive team. There was also the opportunity to learn from team members outside our own subteam, gaining insights from different perspectives and expertise, and receiving chocolates from our instructors, which brought joy and a sense of appreciation for our hard work. On top of that was the challenge of reading and summarizing an 11-page document on the first day, which pushed us to quickly digest information and extract valuable insights and overcoming difficulties when our Raspberry Pi was not working as expected, which taught us valuable problem-solving skills.
WageningenUR: The best moments of the iGEM experience are by far integrating with the iGEM community. We had opportunities to socialize both during our integrating team trip to Germany and the Dutch iGEM Meet 2023, which we co-organized.
IFB-Gdansk: Certainly, it was that tremendous interest and support from many people: university staff, financial support, and help from experts with our problems. Moreover, contact and conversations with other iGEM teams was a memorable and inspiring experience. Discussing common problems, but also finding out what the differences are along the way for teams from all over the world was a truly unique experience. And of course, we won't forget the long hours spent together in numerous meetings, discussing problems and trying to find the best solutions.
iGEM Freiburg: Long nights at the lab with the team.
IISER-TVM: So far our iGEM journey has been a thrilling one but the most memorable part has been working on it as a team, brainstorming ideas for creating a future with advanced mental health care facilities. Also, going out to schools and orphanages to conduct outreach events and camps, teaching students about mental health awareness and how important it is to talk openly about it without any shame or fear has been an unforgettable experience. The kind of love and support we received from them has been our greatest motivation.
UNILausanne: The most memorable moment of our experience at iGEM was definitely when we managed to successfully complete the first PCR and electrophoresis on our own and without the help of assistants and with satisfactory results. It was a moment of pure joy and satisfaction for the whole team!
Exeter: Realizing several weeks into our project that our work was based on two conflicting literature strands akin to children arguing on a playground.
Cornell iGEM: Being able to work with a diverse team of equally passionate and enthusiastic undergrads to create meaningful science.