iGEM in the age of COVID-19: How teams are coping and succeeding
Labs and classrooms around the world are on lockdown, but many contestants in this year’s iGEM competition are moving ahead.
Teams are collaborating and embarking on the early stages of experimentation this spring using video conferencing, virtual brainstorming, and the occasional Netflix Party.
iGEM is the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, a worldwide challenge for both high school and university students. Teams work for months to bring their successful projects to the iGEM Jamboree, which meets each fall in Boston, where more than 100 judges award medals, prizes, and a Grand Prize winner for teams from high school, undergraduate, and “overgraduate” categories.
On March 30, iGEM announced new rules and guidelines for teams as the world grapples with COVID-19, and extended registration through April 30. The Giant Jamboree is still scheduled to take place Oct 29—Nov 2, but is now a virtual competition. The organization also announced special guidelines and social distancing and responsible interaction guidelines.
IDT plays a major role in this competition. Again this year, the company will offer all iGEM teams free custom DNA or other IDT products. Teams can register here.
Teams are taking the new reality of research in the time of COVID-19 in stride. In Denmark, the team from the Technical University is focusing on filamentous fungi and aiming to develop a fungal strain that produces fewer hyphae for easier management of the fermentation process without losing its production abilities. In Turkey, the team from Bilkent University is developing a modular platform which facilitates the display of functional proteins on phage particles; the particles would have a wide range of applications, including therapeutics. Like other teams, Bilkent has expanded their work to include the novel coronavirus, said team member Ömer Can Ergül.
“Luckily, the bigger part of our project was determined before the quarantine,” said Ergül. “But we are still brainstorming to improve it and are closely following the literature. We are focusing on other aspects, like modelling and human practices, the design of a mobile app, and an informative coronavirus webpage.”
One group that has pulled the plug is the team from the University of São Paulo’s Engineering School of Lorena.
“We decided not to attend the Giant Jamboree this year due to financial issues and a team reorganization. Instead, we will focus on developing our project further,” said team member Fábio Nigro.
Nigro’s team was hoping to focus on bioremediation of the pollution of hydric resources using an endocrine disrupter that would optimize the effluent treatment by developing a lactase degrading system.
“We believe that this situation can compromise the engagement of some team members,” Nigro said. “We worry how COVID-19 will impact our academic year and that it will make it even more difficult to obtain financial resources to make possible our participation in iGEM 2021.”
Other teams are pushing ahead, focusing on collaboration and dry lab work.
Janine Wanke, from the iGEM team at Philipps-University Marburg in Germany said researchers were able to start some lab prep just before the school was shuttered.
“Nevertheless, this throws us back,” said Wanke, whose team is working with EvolvR, a directed evolution system published by the Dueber lab that allows the easy and precise mutation of user-defined loci. said. “At the moment, we are developing precise lab protocols, so we are prepared as soon as we may access the labs again.”
Members of the Technical University of Denmark team split into smaller groups to research different aspects of the project and still hope to get back into the lab by the end of May, a timeline which would allow them to stay on schedule. Team members are communicating their work using Slack, Connect, and Zoom, but also keeping things fun and social, like when they had a recent movie night using the Netflix Party app.
Communication is key to staying cohesive, said Wanke from Philipps-University.
“The constant exchange between subteams and frequent updates on what every member is doing allows us to distribute work evenly,” Wanke said. “In addition, everyone is held accountable by setting deadlines.”
Like others, Bilkent’s Ergül said quarantine orders have reshaped the way they research.
“The quarantine slowed us down but has not stopped us,” Ergül said. “The ambiguity of what is going to happen to iGEM is concerning. If we are unable to get the pandemic under control, we will not be able to conduct our experiments. Even though this possibility is alarming, we continue to work hard.”
Looking for inspiration in these tough times? “Stay resilient,” said Wanke. “There are lot of things that are simply not possible at this time, but giving up without trying everything in our power is not an option.”
“Focus on what you *can* do,” said the team from Denmark. “Use time well to ensure that you are as well prepared as possible when the labs reopen. Most importantly, remember to communicate and keep the enthusiasm going so that these months don’t go to waste.”
In Marburg, Wanke said the Philipps-University team had shrunk, leading to a restructure of both duties and subteam members as well as project design.
“We saw the need to reduce our project and design it in a way that allows us to add more projects and experiments along the way,” Wanke said.
Ergül said that, while frustrating, there are aspects of quarantine that teams can use to their advantage.
“Although wet lab is a significant part of iGEM projects, there are other aspects that can be worked on during the quarantine,” he said. “Modelling is a demanding task and isolation is a great opportunity to finish dry lab research. While some models require experimental information, we think it is best to approximate results or obtain them from the literature until we can conduct experiments. Another good candidate these days is Human Practices and Public Engagement. Experts can be consulted online and feedback can be integrated into the project and models.”
While iGEM teams around the world are facing unique challenges, work is not stopping. Teams are using communication, consultation, and fresh ideas to innovate and move their projects forward.