Introducing Twist Bioscience’s 2017 iGEM Sponsorship Winners

On Nov. 10, a three-day Synthetic Biology celebration kicks off in Boston, Mass.
The International Genetically Engineered Machine, or iGEM, is an annual synthetic biology competition, each year culminating in the biggest bioscience jamboree in the world. Over 300 teams of high school, undergraduate and postgraduate students from all continents will compete in one of 14 different categories, showcasing the fruits of their labor after months of planning, designing, and executing ambitious synthetic biology projects.
For many competitors, iGEM is an introduction to applied synthetic biology. At the start of summer, teams are sent a library of stock genetic parts that they will use to build their projects, competing in one of 14 competition categories. Synthetic biology is a diverse field, and these categories encompass this diversity. Some categories this year include synthetic biology applied to healthcare, the development of new energy solutions, the coding of new software that supports synthetic biology and the crossover between art, design and science.
Over the last 14 years, iGEM has become a driving force in not just synthetic biology advancement, but the promotion of the responsible engineering of biology. In doing so, both the new generation of scientists and the public gain awareness of issues surrounding biosafety and responsible innovation. It is believed that through such practice a society can be built that productively and safely applies biological engineering to the benefit of our world.
This year, Twist Bioscience is sponsoring five teams, winners amongst extremely strong competition from all applied. We must say, the quality of science on display this year has already been outstanding, and our choice was in no way an easy task. Overall, we have sponsored teams that have shown ambition, innovation, and grit in their project designs. These teams are:
Ashesi University Ghana – The Greatest Gold Miners – Undergrad – Ghana
Africa’s gold mining industry is illustrious, but small-scale gold mining practices are problematic for the environment of African countries like Ghana.
Gold is an incredibly rare element that fell to our earth contained within asteroids around four  billion years ago. Its extraction produces many thousands of times more metal-rich waste than product which can easily contaminate ground and surface water. Additionally, large quantities of gold are bound out of reach by the mineral-makeup of the ore itself. Such ores need to be pre-treated, a process causing harmful gas emissions from mercury and other harsh chemicals.
Ashesi Ghana hopes to combat the damage caused by mining practices with an engineered mine-dwelling bacteria called Acidithiobacillus. It will be engineered with two proteins that allow the bacteria to sense gold, and when they do, emit a measurable signal. Their engineered bacterium will then be applied in conjunction with an engineered Escherichia coli, which can leach gold from the rocks through a process called bio-oxidation.
Together, Ashesi Ghana’s engineered bacteria offer a harsh chemical-free alternative to gold extraction, and provide a fast bio-detection and quantification method for gold levels within ore. With this tool, the team believes that routine ore surveying will ultimately mitigate unnecessary mining, minimizing waste production and avoiding the destruction of Ghana’s environment.

Ashesi Ghana’s iGEM team

University of Edinburgh – SMORE – Undergrad – Europe
The University of Edinburgh’s team is developing SMORE standing for Site-specific MOlecular REcombination, a project focused on developing a fundamental tool for synthetic biologists based on expanding the toolbox of enzymes available for genetic engineering.
Genetic recombination is a natural process undertaken by all kingdoms of life, in which existing genetic material can be rearranged and new genetic information can be gained. For example, some viruses use genetic recombination to insert their entire genetic code into a host organism’s cell, effectively hijacking it. The cell turns into a virus factory that makes thousands of new viruses from the new genetic material.
Genetic recombination has also proven to be a powerful tool for genome editing and genetic engineering practices by taking advantage of site specific recombinases – enzymes that facilitate recombination, but only at very specific places in the genome.
There are only a sparse number of site-specific recombinases that have been well characterised. To remedy this, SMORE is being developed as a complete toolkit of recombinases that have been thoroughly characterised. The team hopes that these parts will contribute to ongoing projects like Brainbow, a method that uses recombinases to make neurons express distinct colors of fluorescent protein, allowing individual neurons to be distinguished from one another when studying the brain.

Edinburgh’s iGEM team

UPS-INSA Toulouse – Croc’n Cholera – Undergrad – Europe
A common theme in synthetic biology is the engineering of a microorganism’s genetic makeup allowing it to perform a new function. However, using a single organism is problematic when the required input/output is complex. Just as a computer is made up of several modules that each perform specific functions, a population of different microorganisms can perform complex tasks if each organism performs a small, specific part of the whole process from input to output.
UPS-INSA Toulouse is developing a synthetic consortium consisting of the bacterium Vibrio harveyi and the yeast Pichia pastoris, that together communicate to hunt down and destroy the pathogen responsible for cholera, Vibrio cholerae in water. As pathogens require specialist clearance to study, to test their system the team are also engineering E. coli to mimic V. cholerae in a safe manner.
V. harveyi is the scout, engineered to sense the amount of V. cholerae in water. It then communicates this information to P. pastoris, the assassin able to destroy V. cholerae when present.
Cholera is a disease transmitted by water infected with the bacteria Vibrio cholerae, that kills around 30,000 people a year. Currently, Yemen is being hit by a cholera epidemic, with over one million cases expected before the end of 2017 and over 2000 deaths already reported. Over a quarter of all cases have been reported in children under five. UPS-INSA Toulouse hope their bacterial consortia project will help reduce the impact of cholera and other waterborne diseases.

UPS-INSA Toulouse’s iGEM team

Technion Israel – ToleGen – Overgrad – Asia
It is thought that between 10 and 40% of people worldwide suffer from allergies, making allergies one of the most common chronic diseases. Allergies and autoimmune disorders are diseases of the immune system, in which the immune response reacts on an unintended stimulus and causes damage to the body.
Activation of the immune system occurs by sensitization, in which the immune system senses an antigen and kickstarts the immune response. Autoimmune disorders are caused by sensitization to the self, whereas allergies are caused by sensitization to typically inert stimuli.
Despite allergies and autoimmune disorders stemming from the same inherent problem of sensitization, cures are rarely successful, with treatments typically directed at improving a person’s symptoms.
Technion Israel’s tool, ToleGen, will use synthetic biology to teach a population of a person’s stem cells how to tolerate many typical autoimmune and allergy inducing antigens. These cells will act as a vaccine when transplanted into a patient, ensuring every person treated has desensitization for common autoimmune disorders and allergies.

Caricatures of Technion Israel’s iGEM team

University of Oxford – See. Cruzi – Undergrad – Europe
Chagas disease is a tropical disease currently affecting around seven million people, caused by the protist Trypanosoma cruzi and spread by blood-sucking triatomine bugs. The disease presents as a typically asymptomatic acute phase which leads to a chronic phase that causes inflammation of the heart and heart failure.
If the disease is caught in its acute phase, there is a highly successful treatment available. However, as the acute phase is largely asymptomatic, diagnosis requires methods with a high price tag, making it inaccessible for those most affected by the disease. The University of Oxford’s iGEM team hopes to change this by developing technology for low-cost screening of T. cruzi.
Their system will require a simple blood sample, and detect T. cruzi with a protein-based test, in which the functional parts of their screen are stored in a protective fatty membrane and then freeze dried. T. cruzi natively expresses a protein degrading protein “cruzipain” that targets a specific amino acid sequence. Another protein containing this specific target protein sequence is designed to inhibit the expression of an anticlotting agent hirudin. In theory, If T. cruzi aren’t present, the blood sample clots. If they are present, the sample doesn’t clot, giving a positive result.
Oxford hope that their screen for T. cruzi will enable simple screening for acute phase Chagas disease. In the process, it is hoped that the 12,000 lives taken every year by this neglected tropical disease can be significantly reduced.

Oxford’s iGEM team

2017 is proving to be another fantastic year for synthetic biology innovation in iGEM, with great projects on display from around the world. We at Twist Bioscience wish all who are taking part in this year’s iGEM competition good luck!

Image source: iGEM; Authors: iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight