iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) is an international synthetic biology student competition. Hosted by the MIT (Boston, MA) since over 10 years ago, this competition, which attracts students from all around the world, promotes synthetic biology with strong ethics and safety commitments. The 2018 edition featured 340 teams and 5790 team members.
Synthetic biology is the design and construction of new, standardized biological parts and devices, and getting them to do useful things. Parts are encoded using DNA and assembled either in a test tube or in living cells and then applied to deliver many different kinds of outcomes. This field combines engineering and biology skills to solve problems while respecting the environment, ethics and safety. Students are tutored by researchers, PhDs or postdocs, and develop their own project (research, development, communication, sponsorships, ethics, …).
An international contest
iGEM began in 2003. It was initially an MIT summer class, but became a competition in 2004. Since then, iGEM became the reference competition regarding synthetic biology projects, bringing together teams from more than 40 different countries.
iGEM IONIS on previous editions
Our team is mainly composed of students from Sup’Biotech, but also EPITA, Epitech, IPSA, IONIS STM, e-artsup and ESME Sudria, all being part of the IONIS education group, 1st private education group in France.
With these diversified talents, our different teams were able to develop innovative technologies using synthetic biology during the 2015, 2016 and 2017 iGEM editions.
BACT’MAN Adventures: Synthetic Biology for all
The iGEM IONIS 2015 team had the aim to make synthetic biology accessible for all. The team was multidisciplinary, being composed of the following IONIS schools: Sup’Biotech (Engineer school in Biotechnologies), Epita (Engineer school in IT), E-artsup (a school specialised in design). Thanks to this plurality, this team succeeded to conceive a video game, BACT’MAN Adventures, which allowed to promote synthetic biology.
The hero of the game is a bacterium that must avoid to enter in contact with a laser to survive. Indeed, the bacteria had been modified thanks to synthetic biology:
- At the begin of the game, a bacterium is released with several vesicles. When bacteria receive a light stimulation (laser), bacteria synthetise a protein, luciferase, which is a fluorescent protein. The vesicles are sensitive to the fluorescence emitted by the bacteria. They are fragilized and thus release toxins that will kill the bacterium.
- The end of the game leads to the death of the bacteria.
Quantifly, detecting pollution at the source
Over the years, air pollution has become a true ecological and sanitary issue. Although pollution reduction is important, it is also necessary to be able to detect and quantify it in order to take proper actions.
As currently used means of detection (chemical or physical) are considered as poorly efficient, the iGEM IONIS 2016 team, composed of students from Sup’Biotech, EPITA, EPITECH, IPSA, IONIS STM and e-artsup, has developed a new, more effective, biological system. It is specific to organic volatile compounds such as benzene or toluene.
Two main elements constitute the system:
- A biosensor: the use of bacteria that are going to detect the pollutant enabling the release of a light signal linked to the concentration. Bacteria are modified with two genes found in two different species: Pseudomonas putida (detection protein, XylR) et Gaussia princeps (signal protein, Luciferase).
As shown below, XylR protein forms a complex with the pollutant which then allows the expression of the luciferase.
- A drone: it is the means of transport of the biological system which has to bring it directly where the pollutants are.
Thus, this new biological system allows the recovery of more specific and accurate data in less time.
This project was rewarded with a golden medal and several nominations such as best environmental project.
Softer Shock, adapting plants
One of the many international tokens of France is definitely wine. Indeed, over the centuries French wine was able to impose itself as one of the most refined and known wines in the world. Wouldn’t it be a shame to see such a patrimony diminish? Unfortunately, with the climate change we are experiencing today, winemakers are starting to notice that their vineyards are degrading and the wine quality is declining. Frequent droughts and freezing are to be blame.
To answer to the agriculturers’ distress whose survival depends on the quality of their products, the iGEM IONIS 2017 team, composed of students from Sup’Biotech, EPITA and e-artsup, has imagined the Softer Shock project.
The idea is to develop a biological thermosensitive solution allowing the reduction of the plants’ thermal stress.
To fight both the dreadful effects of droughts and freezing, Softer Shock is composed of 2 systems:
- Cold Shock: in this system the UP element is going to allow the transcription of the CspA promotor at low temperatures (<15°C) inducing the expression of ice-binding proteins, thus reducing the formation of ice crystals.
- Heat Shock: the use of the pL promotor only active at temperatures higher than 37°C. Its activation allows the expression of reflective proteins which then induces a cooling effect on the leaves.
To test the efficiency of their induction system, the team has used reporter genes: amilCP chromoprotein for Cold Shock and mRFP fluorescent protein for Heat Shock.
This project was rewarded with a golden medal and several nominations such as best food and nutrition project.
Cinergy, transforming cigarette butts into electricity
France is one of the world’s largest tobacco consumers. More than 4 300 billion cigarettes are thrown on the ground each year in the world, producing a very polluting waste: the cigarette butt. Cigarette butts release harmful substances that turn up in the soil, groundwater and oceans. Moreover, cigarette butts are composed of a plastic called cellulose acetate which slows down the natural degradation of this waste, which can take from 10 to 15 years.
To answer this environmental problem, the iGEM IONIS 2019 team composed of students from Sup’Biotech, ESME Sudria, EPITA and IPSA, imagined the Cinergy project. The aim of the project project was to recover the filter of cigarette butts by degrading it with bacteria in order to produce electricity.
Cigarette butts are first crushed in order to separate the cellulose acetate fibres which serve as substrate for the Escherichia coli bacteria. These fibers are then degraded via different enzymes in order to produce glucose and acetate which are then metabolized into lactate. The latter is excreted and metabolized by a second bacteria, Shewanella oneidensis, which is known as “electrogenic” to produce electrons which are then transmitted to the Microbial Fuel Cell electrode to produce electricity.