Synthetic biology honour for students

[Image] Team Wits-CSIR presenting their innovative
Bio-tweet project to IGEM delegates
in Amsterdam.
(Image: Daniel Solis)

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Christel Jordaan

Five students from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and their team of advisors became the pride of the nation when they were selected as one of the top three teams in the regional semi-finals of the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (IGEM) competition, held in Amsterdam at the beginning of October.

The students and their project, known as Bio-tweet, competed against 2 000 entrants in more than 160 teams, representing over 30 countries.

Bio-tweet was inspired by the concept of social networking, and uses those principles to allow bacteria to assimilate and exchange information in the fight against disease in the body.

The South African team worked in partnership with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to develop their entry for the prestigious technological competition.

They competed in the European regional round, hoping to win one of 18 places to the final, which will take place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 4 to 7 November.

Up against teams from institutions such as the Munich Technical University, the Paris Descartes University, and the universities of Edinburgh and Potsdam, Team Wits-CSIR did not disappoint. They were selected as one of the top three finalists and also walked off with the honours in two of the 10 special categories – best poster, and best experimental measurement approach.

They are the only African team, of three entrants, to make it to the final round.

Bacteria to the rescue

Team Wits-CSIR comprises Sasha Reznichenko and Ezio Fok, both specialising in molecular medicine; microbiologists Gloria Hlongwane and Natasia Kruger, who are also biotechnologists; and Bradley Marques, a specialist in the field of information engineering.

For IGEM 2011, the students were assisted by their advisors Michelle Robinson and Laura Millroy, and various other experts.

Their “tweeting” innovation could help the human body to fight cancer, said the team. Using the Escherichia coli bacterium, found in the human digestive system, they engineered the organism to change colour when it comes into contact with certain substances. Thus, the bacterium becomes a marker.

The team also developed a technique that enables certain types of bacteria to set up a communication network after a substance has been identified, and react to the presence of the substance by performing a specific task. Bacteria will communicate with each other using chemical signals.

According to Robinson, this technique could be used to effectively train bacteria to seek out cancerous, and other dangerous cells and kill them. Other potential applications in industry include the identification and destruction of contaminants, or the collection of economically important substances.

The team was overjoyed at their success in the regionals, and is looking forward to the final showdown in Boston, US, in early November.

“We had aimed to do well in the competition but never dreamed we would be in the top three, when the competition is so fierce,” said Kruger after the award ceremony.

“We have faith in our ability to do South Africa proud,” added Hlongwane, “We will give it everything we have and show the world what South Africa has to offer.”

Growing interest in synthetic biology

The IGEM competition began in 2004 as a holiday project for MIT students who were interested in synthetic biology, a fast-growing field that involves the design of biological systems that don’t occur naturally. This exciting competition went international in 2006 and attracted 32 teams. Just five years later, the number of teams has grown to over 160.

IGEM’s goal is for participants to create biological “machines” by combining the principles of biology and engineering. There are many useful applications for such organisms, ranging from the decontamination of radioactive effluent to a vaccine that fights the bacteria that causes stomach ulcers.

Teams in the regional stages are given kits containing biological parts, which they then use to design biological systems that can operate in living cells.

The competition’s high profile will also hopefully help to demystify the idea behind genetically modified organisms, a concept still viewed with suspicion by many.

During the 2011 National Science Week the Wits-CSIR team interacted with schoolchildren and explained the many ways in which synthetic biology and genetic engineering can benefit people. They also hoped to interest children in making a future career in science.