Utrecht iGEM team wins gold in Boston

International research competition as booster of diversity

The Utrecht-based student team that participated in the final round of the iGEM competition won the gold medal. "An amazing achievement", according to professor Niels Geijssen (Hubrecht Institute and faculty of Veterinary Medicine), who supervised the team, together with professors Roos Masereeuw and Guido van den Ackerveken (both faculty of Science).  

Het Utrechtse IGEM team viert goud in Boston
Het Utrechtse iGEM-team in Boston.

iGEM - short for The International Genetically Engineered Machine - is the result of an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to promote young, talented scientists. The competition gives students the unique chance to come up with a research project of their own, raise money for it, plan the project, carry it out and, finally, present it to a jury of high-ranking scientific experts during the annual iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston.

Student van het Utrechtse iGEM team aan het werk in het lab


The iGEM team from Utrecht came forth from two simultaneous initiatives. Two students at the Faculty of Biology had the idea to put a team together, with Guido van Ackerveken as supervisor, while Niels Geijsen, a professor at the Hubrecht Institute and the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, was also organising a team and funding. Kewin Ogink, one of the Utrecht-based students who travel to Boston, reflects: “After that, we sought each other out and formed one team together. Now we have fifteen member from life sciences, biology, pharmacy and biomedical sciences.”

Professor Sangeeta Bhatia.

In the spirit of Sangeeta Bhatia

Masereeuw, Van Ackerveken and Geijsen wanted to provide an additional contribution to diversity in science in the wake of Sangeeta Bhatia's honorary doctorate: “Bhatia is unique, not just as a link between different fields of expertise, but also as an advocate for diversity and young talent.” That got them to think: “What can we do to improve diversity within the UU?” They have little influence on primary and secondary education, even though they notice that part of the problem originates there:

“Pupils with migration backgrounds more often get an MBO advice, even when they have way more potential,” Geijsen says. “Diversity is an essential element for successful science,” Van Ackerveken explains. “You only find solutions to a difficult problem if you approach it from as many perspectives as possible. The Utrecht-based iGEM team is living proof of that. It's incredible what the students achieved in 6 months!”

Students these days don't have a lot of money anymore and this applies even more to students with migration backgrounds. That means that international internships - like on Harvard - stay unobtainable, and that their talents remain potentially invisible on their CVs.

In the lecture halls, the professors see the consequences of that: the diversity is limited. Geijsen: “Students these days don't have a lot of money anymore and students with migration backgrounds can less often appeal to financial contributions from their parents. That means that international internships - like on Harvard - stay unobtainable, and that their talents remain potentially invisible on their CVs.” “The Deans of Life Sciences didn't have to consider it for long and quickly adopted the plan as a great idea,” Masereeuw says with delight, which granted the team a firm foundation in practical and financial terms.

Het Utrechtse iGEM team in het lab met logo van "De Kennis van Nu"

Check out the iGEM special of De Kennis van Nu 

The Utrecht-based iGEM students were followed by the NTR show De Kennis van Nu (The Knowledge of Now) in the online special "Studenten ontwerpen nieuw leven" (Students design new life). Please note that this video is in Dutch.

The research from Utrecht

Their research aims to develop a biosensor that can detect Chagas disease in an early stage. This disease can cause serious heart conditions if it is not treated in time. As the diagnose is often not made in practice - or too late, at least 10,000 people die from it every year, primarily in Latin America.


In order to solve this problem, the team created the DNA sensor 'OUTCASST' - which uses CRISPR-Cas, among other things - to detect the disease more easily and in an earlier stage.


Ouafa Dahri, one of the captains of the team: “Over 300 teams are competing. The competition is about the solving of real problems with synthetic biology.” What makes the competition so special, she explains, is that the students do everything themselves, from creating a project plan, finding sponsors, carrying out the project in a practical way to communication and PR.” The team has already succeeded at the latter part: Their project can be followed via the site of the VPRO show De Kennis van Nu, and they will also be active on Facebook and Twitter during the event in Boston.

The iGEM team on Facebook
The iGEM team on Twitter