The international competition iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) pits student from all over the world against each other in synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is a field in which biology and technology meet, and the members of the LiU team this year were students from three programmes: engineering, chemical and medical biology. We visited the LiU iGEM 2017 team during the summer, when they were busy with the laboratory work for their project. Summer became winter, and in November the team travelled to Boston to present the results, as one of the teams satisfying certain competition criteria and allowed to participate in the iGEM Giant Jamboree. The selected teams present their research during poster sessions and give an oral presentation to a jury. Nearly 350 teams took part this year.
“ The presentation was held for six judges – some of them were previous participants in the competition, others were researchers and people who work in synthetic biology,” says Moa Nilsson.
“We were really nervous,” Moa Nilsson and Marie Peterson agree, but the team impressed the jury. LiU iGEM 2017 was awarded a silver medal, satisfying the criteria set up by the competition management.
“You’re competing both against all the other teams and against yourself. So all through the spring, summer and autumn we’ve been working hard to achieve new criteria. We were only two criteria away from achieving gold,” says Moa Nilsson.
The criteria cover both experimental aspects and others, such as building a website. Another component is that of disseminating knowledge about what the team is doing. LiU iGEM participated in the Linköping Town Festival in August with a laboratory for children, quizzes and information about Alzheimer’s disease, in collaboration with the Linköping branch of Demensförbundet (The Dementia Association - The National Association for the Rights of the Demented).
“During the town festival, we displayed information from other teams taking part and their projects, in order to show how broad the field of synthetic biology is, and the really exciting projects that you can do. Collaboration with other teams participating in iGEM is also one of the silver criteria, and we collaborated with a team from Harvard,” Marie Peterson tells us.
LiU iGEM 2017 in Boston: front row (from the left): Moa Nilsson, Jonathan Bergqvist, Max Lindberg, Oskar Reinhed Gustafson, Henrik Karlsson, Lovisa Karlsson and Marie Peterson. Back row: Johan Larsson, Sophie Stridh Karppinen and Jonatan Baggman. Photo: LiU iGEM/Marie Peterson.
Proteins folding wronglyDuring the development of Alzheimer’s disease, two proteins, amyloid beta and tau, initially form large fibres, which subsequently get tangled and form different types of plaque in the brain. The goal of LiU iGEM was to improve how bacteria produce the plaque-forming proteins, so that they could be used in studies of how fibres and plaque form. In order to visualise the process, the group wanted to create fusion proteins, in which the protein you want to study is bound to a protein that emits green light in the microscope.
“We managed to join amyloid beta to a green-fluorescing protein and could conduct the experiment with the fusion protein to show that the system was working properly,” says Moa Nilsson.
The team had started their experiments on the tau protein, but after several set-backs decided to test amyloid beta instead. This allowed LiU iGEM to contribute a building brick for the enormous library of biological building bricks that iGEM is helping to create. It is an intention of the competition that the projects are to be useful and available for research.
An amazingly rewarding experienceWhen asked about what has been the most rewarding aspect of participating in iGEM, the team agrees unanimously: working independently, while at the same time collaborating in the project group.
“The experience of working in a project group has been really valuable, and something I will benefit from in my professional life. And working for a summer in the laboratory means that you feel a lot more secure,” says Moa Nilsson.
The way forward is not straight, as it may often be in a research project: it includes sudden curves, peaks and valleys, and this it what makes it fun, according to Marie Peterson.
“I’ve learnt most from the set-backs. And at the same time, you work with loads of new people, not just from your own faculty, and get to know them. This has been the best part of participating.”
After the successful project and competition result in 2017, recruitment is now under way for the next iGEM competition. Final date for applications is 14 January 2018.