20 August 2018

One of the greatest experiences of their lives

Utrecht sends its second team to the iGEM competition

In October every year, 6,000 of the world’s brightest students gather at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, USA, to compete in the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. This five-day event is the grand-finale of nearly a year’s hard work, and teams will showcase their innovative projects on stage, under the hot lights in front of their peers and the public.

By participating in the iGEM competition, students experience all aspects of science.

iGEM is a student competition in synthetic biology, where students compete to build a synthetic biological system that can serve humanity in a useful way for example, designing bacteria to clean up oil spills. By participating in the iGEM competition, students experience all aspects of science. Not only do they conceive and execute a novel scientific project, they also actively implement non-scientific skills such as leadership, fundraising, management, public outreach and communication.

Utrecht iGEM 2018 Team

Building upon a successful first team in 2017, Utrecht is sending its second team to the iGEM competition. The Utrecht iGEM 2018 team consists of 10 students with a variety of different academic backgrounds in veterinary sciences, computational biology, pharmacy, biomedical sciences and biology. “This is the best way to learn about what it’s like to be in the lab,” explains Marjolein ten Dam. “And our discussions are eye-opening and multi-layered because we’re all so different.”

This is the best way to learn about what it’s like to be in the lab.
Marjolein ten Dam
student Biomedical Sciences

“What’s equally valuable are the secondary skills we each bring to the table – coding skills, business sense, graphics, humor,” adds Flora de Graaf, who is responsible for the team’s outreach efforts together with Marjolein. These additional talents are tremendously useful in fulfilling the competition requirements that include developing a wiki page, designing a logo, fundraising and communications.

Why supervise an iGEM team?

“The iGEM experience is a unique way to contribute to fostering talent,” describes Bas Dutilh, one of Utrecht’s five supervisors, “These are the very best and brightest students of our university and as supervisors, it’s a real privilege to mentor this enthusiastic team.” The team has become very close; they’ve spent a lot of time together, both directly on the project and during team building activities, and really enjoy each other’s company. “It’s inspiring to watch them grow an idea and drive it forward,” says Bas, “And, it’s just good fun.”

The iGEM experience is a unique way to contribute to fostering talent.
Bas Dutilh
Bas Dutilh
assistant professor bioinformatics, Faculty of Science

From theory to practice

After a few months of coming up with crazy random ideas, searching literature and hours of discussion, the team decided on a project. They’re seeking to exploit the natural swimming mechanism in bacteria called chemotaxis. Bacteria are simple organisms and swim towards favorable environments and away from chemicals and unfriendly situations. They sense environmental chemical gradients through signals located on their cell membrane called receptors, which detect specific chemicals and stimulate mobility.

The team is engineering a novel biosensor system by modifying a receptor involved in chemotaxis. They’ll then attach a fluorescent color signal onto the receptor. If bacteria encounter a chemical associated with the receptor, the bacteria will light up.

One of the greatest challenges of iGEM is to produce a proof-of-concept in the lab that could have societal impact.

The team envisions that this biosensor could be a valuable new research tool. One of the greatest challenges of iGEM is to produce a proof-of-concept in the lab that could have societal impact. The team is currently discussing which application they feel would be most relevant for healthcare. One example is the detection of certain compounds like food toxins. Over the summer, the iGEM team will immerse themselves full-time in the lab, and they’ve set up a rotating schedule, with limited vacation time for everyone. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” agree Marjolein and Floor, “We’d be crazy to give it up.” After narrowing down which receptors and associated compounds to work with, and which application to focus on, they’ll execute and complete their project, and prepare for their presentation in Boston.  

Follow, like and interact

If you’re interested in learning more about what the Utrecht iGEM 2018 Team is working on, or if you have ideas and suggestions, the group encourages you to contact them. Follow the Utrecht iGEM Team 2018, like them and interact with them on their Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram.

Utrecht iGEM 2018 Team

  • Jolijn Govers
    Molecular Life Sciences, Team Captain and accountant
  • Helen Tsang
    Pharmacy, Team Vice-Captain
  • Franca van Heijningen
    Biomedical Sciences, Secretary
  • Khadija Ahmiane
    Pharmacy, Funding manager
  • Pim Swart: Biology
    Funding manager
  • Flora de Graaf
    Veterinary Medicine, Outreach (Human Practices + Public Relations)
  • Marjolein ten Dam
    Biomedical Sciences, Outreach (Human Practices + Public Relations)
  • Meine Boer
    Master Molecular & Cellular Life Sciences, Wiki manager
  • Lorenzo Pattiradjawane
    Biology, Lab Manager
  • Felix Bindt
    Molecular Life Sciences, Human Practices + Funding