This year marks the first time that Utrecht University students take part in the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. We spoke to two of the team members: Kewin, third-year Bachelor’s student in Biology, and Leander, first-year Master’s student in Molecular and Cellular Life Sciences. The students do not only aim to win the competition, but also want to solve real world problems. “We are developing a simpler and cheaper way to detect pathogens in the blood,” explains Leander.
Student team takes part in iGEM competition
Utrecht students aim for gold at synthetic biology competition
“iGEM is an international interdisciplinary synthetic biology competition,” Kewin explains. “More than 300 teams take part and compete by solving real world problems with synthetic biology.” The special part, he adds, is that the students do everything themselves, from arranging funding to communications and PR.
“Synthetic biology means designing new biological systems,” teammate Lishi explains. “This entails the genetic adjustment of microorganisms to give them a new or customised function. An example is the production of insulin for diabetic patients. Insulin for therapeutic use is derived from bacteria that are adapted to produce insulin. Earlier, insulin was recovered from pigs, horses and cows.”
Recognising DNA sequences
Leander: “We started in January by getting the team together, and we spent most of the spring brainstorming and organising funding.” The team first thought of an interesting technique and only after that came up with possible applications, he admits. “We realised that we can use cells to recognise DNA. And then we realised that we can use that to detect pathogens in the blood.” Detecting pathogen DNA in the blood allows for diagnosis of diseases. “Our method is simpler than current techniques. We use cells with synthetic receptors to bind the DNA, and then the cells amplify the signal. That may allow us to detect lower concentrations of pathogen DNA than other methods.”
“Current methods often use a technique called PCR to amplify these signals,” Kewin explains, “which works well, but is not available everywhere.” Leander adds: “We are using human cells instead because they have no cell wall, which means that they are easier to use for our purposes. That makes our system simper and cheaper, and it means that we can adapt our system to make it suitable for use in third world countries.”
A few other universities in the Netherlands have taken part in the iGEM competition before, but Utrecht is making its iGEM debut in 2017. “It’s funny,” says Kewin. “There were actually two students who came up with the idea, at the same time Niels Geijssen from the Hubrecht Institute was already working with another team to organise funding. We all met up and then merged to one team. Now, we have fifteen members from life sciences, biology, pharmacy, and biomedical sciences.”
The iGEM competition ends with a giant jamboree in Boston in November, which the whole team will attend. There are medals and awards to be won in several categories. The awards are in competition with other teams, but the medals are given to all teams that meet certain requirements. The team is optimistic about their chances. “We will give an oral presentation and present a poster,” Leander says. “We aim to at least get nominated for a Best Model award, we should have a good shot at that. And we have interviewed so many people that we should already meet the requirements for a gold medal in human practices.”