Today’s guest blog about the 2020 virtual iGEM Giant Jamboree is written by Lancia Lefebvre, Team Leader of iGEM Concordia.
After a year of full-time work, I joined our team of 16 undergraduate students to live-stream the virtual iGEM Giant Jamboree from the isolation of our respective apartments. Together in a separate zoom call and Facebook chat, we fired off messages as awards were announced. ‘OMG Toulouse won best poster! Did you see Aachen’s project?’ Then came the Software Track award, our track, and boom! “Concordia-Montreal are the Software Track Winners for iGEM Giant Jamboree 2020!”
Firework and heart emojis exploded in our chat and on my zoom call, mouths gaped in shock and pride. Our AstroBio database for differential gene expression in microgravity conditions had won! Innumerable lines of code; hours of consultation with NASA bioinformaticians, bioethicists and coding pros; detailed graphic design; and most of all passionate teamwork had brought us this distinction. A gold medal and an inclusion nomination soon followed. This nomination we hold close to our heart as we continuously collaborate on a safe, warm and welcoming team structure. Supporting each other and working together are core iGEM values, which lead to collaborative and stronger solutions to world problems through the application of synthetic biology solutions.
Synthetic biology—genetically engineering an organism to do or make something useful—is the central goal of the iGEM competition each year. After teams conquer the challenge of cloning their gene, the next hurdle is demonstrating that the engineered gene is expressing the desired protein (and possibly quantifying the level of expression), which they may do using a reporter gene.
Reporters can also play a more significant role in iGEM projects when teams design their organism with reporter genes to detect and signal the presence of specific molecules, like environmental toxins or biomarkers. Three of the iGEM teams Promega sponsored this year opted to incorporate some version of NanoLuc® Luciferase into their projects.
NanoLuc® luciferase is a small monomeric enzyme (19.1kDa, 171 amino acids) based on the luciferase from the deep sea shrimp Oplophorus gracilirostris. This engineered enzyme uses a novel substrate, furimazine, to produce high-intensity, glow-type luminescence in an ATP-independent reaction. Unlike other molecules for tagging and detecting proteins, NanoLuc® luciferase is less likely to interfere with enzyme activity and affect protein production due to its small size.
NanoLuc® Luciferase has also been engineered into a structural complementation reporter system, NanoBiT® Luciferase, that contains a Large subunit (LgBiT) and two small subunit options: low affinity SmBiT and high affinity HiBiT. Together, these NanoLuc® technologies provide a bioluminescent toolbox that was used by the iGEM teams to address a diverse set of biological challenges.
Here is an overview of each team’s project and how they
incorporated NanoLuc® technology.
After attending the iGEM Giant Jamboree last year and being completely blown away by the projects presented (check out this article or this one), I didn’t think I’d be as astonished this year. I attributed part of the awe I felt over the caliber and quality of the projects to my wide-eyed naiveté, having never attended the event before. The second time around, the “first-time” novelty long worn off, I didn’t expect to feel that same level of amazement.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
After three days of impressive presentations, I once again felt that same astonishment as I prepared to watch the presentations of the 6 finalists. With good reason—the projects presented by the six finalists completely blew my mind!
Today’s blog is guest-written by Wihan Adi, a Master’s student majoring in physics at Justus-Liebig-University in Giessen and team member of iGEM Marburg. Although his background is in nuclear and particle physics, his research interests shifted toward affordable biosensors for point-of-care cancer detection, which is how he ended up doing microbiology for iGEM.
Back in March when the iGEM season had just started, Maurice, a fellow iGEM Marburg team member, told me that he was exchanging emails with Margaretha Schwartz from Promega. Given my background as a physics student, Promega was not a household name for me at the time. “So, are you interested in automating a plasmid purification protocol?” asked Maurice. He told me that Promega was willing to supply the Wizard® MagneSil® Plasmid Purification System for this purpose; that was another name that added to my confusion.
This year, iGEM Marburg is aiming to establish a fast phototrophic organism as a synthetic biology chassis. For this goal we chose Synechococcus elongatus UTEX 2973, with a reported doubling time of 90 minutes. More specifically, we are creating an easy to use toolbox to empower rapid design testing, including genome engineering tools, self-replicating plasmid systems, natural competence and a Golden Gate-based part library. Our team chose to work on phototrophic organisms because we envision accelerating research in this particular field. (Note: Last year, Marburg’s iGEM project won the Grand Prize!)
Formal judgement in any context is nerve-racking. Scientists, familiar with being judged, rely on others to evaluate (and hopefully accept) everything from a PhD thesis defense to grant proposals and peer-reviewed journal article submissions. The frustrating part is not knowing exactly what the judges are looking for. Sure there are requirements and guidelines to follow—but how are the judges going to interpret them? It would be a whole lot easier if we could just peek into their minds. Unfortunately for most, that fantasy isn’t likely to turn into reality.
But if you are part of an iGEM team, today is your lucky day! Our own Preeta Guptan volunteers as a judge for the iGEM competition, and in today’s article you will get her insider’s perspective about what iGEM judges look for. You will also get some tips to help you excel in the iGEM competition—and effectively communicate about science in general.
Preeta is an External Innovation Manager at Promega, which means she seeks out and investigates technology that might be valuable for Promega to license or acquire. The opportunity to scout up-and-coming synthetic biology advances was one reason she wanted to be an iGEM judge, but curiosity was at the core of her decision. Preeta and the other judges bring their unique perspectives and experiences to each iGEM project and team they evaluate. Here are some suggestions from Preeta:
On May 13, 2019, twenty-five meters below the streets of Stockholm in a retired nuclear reactor, Nerea Capon and her iGEM team unveiled an artistic fusion of creativity and synthetic biology. The Synthetic Biology Art Exhibition featured works by other iGEM teams and local artists, all presenting their unique reflections on the concepts of synthetic biology. The collection included synthetic skin grown by bacteria, performance art, and even a musical snail that spent the week crawling around a table full of plants.
Synthetic biology has been in the news a lot lately—or maybe it only seems like it because I’m spending a lot of my time thinking about our partnership with the iGEM Foundation, which is dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology. As the 2019 iGEM teams are forming, figuring out what their projects will be and how to fund them, it seemed fitting to share some of these stories.
The 2019 iGEM Competition is on the horizon and team registration opens this month. We’re excited to partner with the iGEM Foundation again this year and offer our support to the young scientists who participate. If you’re starting an iGEM project, there are going to be things you need along the way. We are pleased to share a number of different ways we can help your iGEM team from now until the Giant Jamboree.
Imagine you are a high school student living in a community devastated by gun violence and death. In the U.S., this could be one of many communities, but it happens to be Baltimore which had 301 deaths due to gun violence in 2017 (with a per capita rate well above other large cities). Then imagine you were part of an organization within that community that helped you, along with other students, gain knowledge and skills to come up with a viable solution to the problem using synthetic biology.
This is exactly how the Baltimore Bio-Crew came up with their iGEM project, Coagulance Rx. The Baltimore Bio-Crew decided to tackle this community issue head-on. One team member, Mercedes Ferandes, reflected, “Living in Baltimore City, I have not only witnessed gun violence in front of me, but have had family members and friends die from it. I wanted to try to decrease the amount of deaths by gun violence using iGEM.”
After some research, they discovered that many of the gun deaths were due to blood loss and could have been prevented. The impoverished neighborhoods where this violence occurs lack the resources to provide timely emergency medical treatment. Many of these deaths can be attributed to delayed arrival of emergency response teams—wait times for an ambulance can be over an hour.
Although there were several contributing factors beyond their control, the team wanted to address this problem by focusing on blood clotting and how it could be helpful as a quick temporary treatment for open wounds. This solution could offer a reliable, cost efficient way to save lives by slowing or stopping blood loss until a victim could get medical attention. The team decided to pursue the use of snake venom after coming across some previous iGEM projects that had used it for clotting. Team member Henry Ryles pointed out that the need for snake venom powerful enough to clot blood quickly led them to choose the venom of the Russell’s Viper (Daboia russelii).
Judy Nguyen wasn’t looking for an adventure as the Head of Scientific Research at a fledgling incubator for students. She just finished her Ph.D. in molecular biology and neuroscience, and was looking for stable work in scientific research or biotechnology. However, when she arrived in Tacoma, Washington, she was disappointed by the opportunities available to her.
“With Puget Sound, in the Pacific Northwest, so outdoorsy…Most of Tacoma is environmental science, which is not my background,” Judy says. “I had a hard time finding anywhere to fit in.”
Judy finally found a position with an engineering company, but she didn’t feel quite at home. One day, her boss sent her out for an external meeting with a professor who had, she was told, “cool ideas.” She was instructed to establish a connection and return with ideas for how her company could collaborate with the “crazy professor.” As it turns out, that “crazy professor” had an idea for an organization to spark a revolution in the life science community around Tacoma.