2023 Promega iGEM Grant Winners: Tackling Global Problems with Synthetic Biology Solutions

On June 15, 2023, we announced the winners of the 2023 Promega iGEM grant. Sixty-five teams submitted applications prior to the deadline with projects ranging from creating a biosensor to detect water pollution to solving limitations for CAR-T therapy in solid tumors. The teams are asking tough questions and providing thoughtful answers as they work to tackle global problems with synthetic biology solutions. Unfortunately, we could only award nine grants. Below are summaries of the problems this year’s Promega grant winners are addressing.

UCSC iGEM

An immature night heron against the green surface of Pinto Lake. 2023 Promega iGEM Grant Winner, UCSC iGEM seeks to mitigate these harmful aglal blooms.
A night heron hunts on Pinto Lake, California.

The UCSC iGEM team from the University of California–Santa Cruz is seeking a solution to mitigate the harmful algal blooms caused by Microcystis aeruginosa in Pinto Lake, which is located in the center of a disadvantaged community and is a water source for crop irrigation. By engineering an organism to produce microcystin degrading enzymes found in certain Sphingopyxis bacteria, the goal is to reduce microcystin toxin levels in the water. The project involves isolating the genes of interest, testing their efficacy in E. coli, evaluating enzyme production and product degradation, and ultimately transforming all three genes into a single organism. The approach of in-situ enzyme production offers a potential solution without introducing modified organisms into the environment, as the enzymes naturally degrade over time.

IISc-Bengaluru

Endometriosis is a condition that affects roughly 190 million (10%) women of reproductive age worldwide. Currently, there is no treatment for endometriosis except surgery and hormonal therapy, and both approaches have limitations. The IISc-Bengaluru team at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, India, received 2023 Promega iGEM grant support to investigate the inflammatory nature of endometriosis by targeting IL-8 (interleukin-8) a cytokine. Research by other groups has snow that targeting IL-8 can reduce endometriotic tissue. This team will be attempting to create an mRNA vaccine to introduce mRNA for antibody against IL-8 into affected tissue. The team is devising a new delivery mechanism using aptides to maximize the delivery of the vaccine to the affected tissues.

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Left-Handed DNA: Is That Right?

There’s a certain group of people (including this blog post author) who derive no small amount of amusement from seeing stock photos of DNA and pointing out flaws in the structure. It’s even more amusing when these photos are used in marketing by life science companies. The most common flaw: the DNA molecule is a left-handed double helix.

What does that even mean? DNA, like many organic chemicals in biology, is a chiral molecule. That is, it can exist in two structural forms that are mirror images of each other but are not superimposable (enantiomers). Just like your left and right hands are mirror images of each other, the two DNA structures are left-handed and right-handed double helices. The DNA double helix is chiral, because its building blocks (nucleotides) are chiral.

Two DNA helices that are mirror images

It can be challenging, at first glance, to tell whether an image of DNA is left-handed or right-handed. Various helpful hints are available; however, the one that I’ve found easiest to remember is described in a blog post by Professor Emeritus Larry Moran at the University of Toronto:

Imagine that the double helix is a spiral staircase, and you’re walking down the staircase. If you’re turning to the right as you descend, the DNA structure is right-handed; if turning to the left, it’s left-handed. In the image shown earlier, the DNA molecule on the right is a right-handed double helix, while its mirror image is left-handed.

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The BTC Institute: Serving Youth Skills and Science for Summer

World Youth Skills Day provides a unique opportunity to emphasize the importance of equipping young people with experiences, skills, and opportunities in the workforce. This celebratory day falls on July 15th and was officially declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 2014.

At Promega, we are constantly adhering to invest in the future generations of science—and the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute) serves this mission best. The BTC Institute is a non-profit organization that provides educational, scientific, and cultural opportunities for people of all ages. Each summer, the organization hosts a wide range of experiences including camps, programs, and field trips to support individuals interested in science. In the spirit of World Youth Skills Day, let’s take a look at some experiences that are offered for young learners in summer 2022.

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Promega Highlights Innovative Work with Brazil Young Researcher Award


In late May 2022, Promega invited the nine finalists for the Promega Brazil Young Researcher Award to present their work at a Student Research Symposium on the Promega Madison campus.

Scientists from around Brazil recently traveled to Madison, WI, USA as part of the Brazil Young Researcher Award

The Brazil Young Researcher Award program was created to acknowledge exceptional work by Brazilian students utilizing Promega products in their research. These student researchers were recognized for their achievements and were given the opportunity to present their innovative research to Promega scientists as part of a week-long immersive experience on the Promega campus.

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Monochromator vs Filter-Based Plate Reader: Which is Better?

When it comes to purchasing a microplate reader for fluorescence detection, the most common question is whether to choose a monochromator-based reader or filter-based reader. In this blog, we’ll discuss how both types of plate readers work and factors to consider when determining the best plate reader for your need.

How do monochromator-based plate readers work?

Monochromators work by taking a light source and splitting the light to focus a particular wavelength on the sample. During excitation, the light passes through a narrow slit, directed by a series of mirrors and diffraction grating and then passes through a second narrow slit prior to reaching the sample. This ensures the desired wavelength is selected to excite the fluorophore. Once the fluorophore is excited, it emits light at a different, longer wavelength. This emission light is captured by another series of mirrors, grating and slits to limit the emission to a desired wavelength, which then enters a detector for signal readout.

Monochromator-based plate reader
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Biotechnology Teaching Online: A New Way to Look at Scientific Notebooks

This post is written by guest blogger, Peter Kritsch MS, Adjunct Instructor BTC Institute.

When I was in the middle of my junior year in high school, my family moved. We had lived in the first state for 12 years. I had gone to school there since kindergarten. Although it wasn’t a small district, I knew everybody and, for better or worse, everybody knew me. Often the first reaction I get when I tell people when we moved is that it must have been hard to move so close to graduation. The reality is . . . it really wasn’t. In fact, it was quite liberating. See, I didn’t have to live up to anybody else’s expectations of who I was based on some shared experience in 2nd grade. I had the opportunity to be who I wanted to be, to try new things without feeling like I couldn’t because that wasn’t who I was supposed to be. 

As long as I refrained from beginning too many sentences with “Well at my old school . . . “ people had to accept me for who I was in that moment, not for who they perceived me to be for the previous 12 years. Now, the new activities were not radically different. I still played baseball and still geeked out taking AP science classes, but I picked up new activities like golf, playing basketball with my friends, and even joined the yearbook. I know . . . “radically different.”  The point is that the new situation allowed me to try something new without worrying about what had always been. 

Peter teaches about biofuels in his virtual classroom.

The pandemic has forced a lot of us to move our classrooms online. In a short period of time, everything changed about how education was done. Our prior teaching experience, including the experience I had with doing blended learning (ooops . . . “back at my old school”), was helpful to a point.  But we quickly found out that being completely virtual was different. And as science teachers, how do you do more than just teach concepts when online? How do you help students to continue engaging in the crucial parts of science – observing, questioning, designing, analyzing, and communicating?

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Screen Media in the Time of COVID-19: Should You Be Reading this Blog?

Screen Media. Cell phones. Social media accounts. If you are a parent, you have probably discussed rules of engagement with your children about these things. All of our modern social media platforms are designed to keep us engaged with them by showing us the latest post, the next video or the people now online. Work emails give us notifications when something arrives in our Inbox. Business software platforms like Microsoft Teams send us notifications whenever someone comments in a conversation we have ever been part of. There are many siren signals pulling us toward our screens.

Enter COVID-19, the flu-like illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has already claimed the lives of 210,000 people in the United States, and leaving countless others permanently affected by other long-term health consequences. Spread by aerosol, COVID-19 is most dangerous in places where lots of people congregate in a small area, particularly if they are talking to each other. Consequently, office buildings are empty as many of us work or go to school remotely.

Before COVID-19, if I had a day full of meetings at work, I was running from conference room to conference room, two miles, uphill, in the snow between buildings. Now, a day full of meetings means sitting in front of a computer monitor, trying to figure out how I will get any kind of break between calls. The average number of steps recorded by my pedometer has decreased markedly since March when our remote work started.

Technology has been an incredible blessing during this pandemic—allowing us to continue to work and stay connected with friends and family. Technology is the only way that some people can connect with loved ones in long-term care facilities. It allows students to continue learning through remote classrooms and chats.

But what has been the effect of the increased time spent on screens during this pandemic?

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In Vitro Transcription and the Use of Modified Nucleotides

In vitro transcription
RNA polymerase unwinds DNA strands for transcription.

Transcription is the production of RNA from a DNA sequence. It’s a necessary life process in most cells. Transcription performed in vitro is also a valuable technique for research applications—from gene expression studies to the development of RNA virus vaccines.

During transcription, the DNA sequence is read by RNA polymerase to produce a complimentary, antiparallel RNA strand. This RNA strand is called a primary transcript, often referred to as an RNA transcript. In vitro transcription is a convenient method for generating RNA in a controlled environment outside of a cell.

In vitro transcription offers flexibility when choosing a DNA template, with a few requirements. The template must be purified, linear, and include a double stranded promoter region. Acceptable template types are plasmids or cloning vectors, PCR products, synthetic oligos (oligonucleotides), and cDNA (complimentary DNA). 

In vitro transcription is used for production of large amounts of RNA transcripts for use in many applications including gene expression studies, RNA interference studies (RNAi), generation of guide RNA (gRNA) for use in CRISPR, creation of RNA standards for quantification of results in reverse-transcription quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR), studies of RNA structure and function, labeling of RNA probes for blotting and hybridization or for RNA:protein interaction studies, and preparation of specific cDNA libraries, just to name a few!

In vitro transcription can also be applied in general virology to study the effects of an RNA virus on a cell or an organism, and in development and production of RNA therapeutics and RNA virus vaccines. The large quantity of viral RNA produced through in vitro transcription can be used as inoculation material for viral infection studies. Viral mRNA transcripts, typically coding for a disease-specific antigen, can be quickly created through in vitro transcription, and used in the production of vaccines and therapeutics.

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From Forensic Analysis to Taco Thursday: My Experience as a Promega Intern

Today’s blog is written by guest blogger, Kali Denis, an intern in our scientific applications group. You’ll find her bio at the end of the article.

A few months ago, I stood in front of my freezer at home, holding a bag with a tube full of gum that I chewed. The freezer was overflowing, as we had just done our weekly grocery shopping, so I ended up stuffing the bag next to some frozen fish sticks. I wondered how long it would take for one of my roommates to question just exactly what this gross-looking bag was doing in our freezer. I doubt they would have ever guessed that it was for a project at my internship!

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Promega Scientists Helping Researchers and Students at the Marine Biological Laboratory

This summer, I had the opportunity to go to the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. MBL was founded in 1888 as an institution that focuses on research and education. Woods Hole is located on Cape Cod and has rich biodiversity that is the focus of the resident researchers and the many others that travel there each summer. It was here that new model organisms were discovered, allowing significant advancement in various fields. For example, squid have large axons that allowed researchers to expand our knowledge of neurons.

Over 500 scientists from over 300 institutions in over 30 countries come to MBL each year as trainees1. There are 19 advanced research training courses for pre-and post-doctoral scientists in development, reproduction, cell physiology, microbiology, infectious disease, neuroscience, and microscopy. Faculty that teach the courses are leaders in their respective fields. In addition, MBL has a neuro-physiology fellowship program through the Grass Foundation that allows early-stage researchers to come to MBL for 14 weeks to do research.

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