Once again, a group of students from Groningen is taking part in the annual iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. Teams from across the globe will do their best to make a bacterium do something entirely new using standard genetic ‘building blocks’. In 2012,
the Groningen team
won this competition with a bacterium that could indicate whether meat was still edible or not. The new team intends to generate energy in an area where fresh water merges with salt water. This blog will follow them as they prepare for the competition, which starts in Boston (USA) on 24 September.
In January, we saw a notice asking for people to form a new iGEM team. Unsuspecting students as we were, we signed up. Our team comprises a group of ten Bachelor’s and Master’s students, including biologists, chemists, computer scientists, and even a mathematician and a medical technologist.
We see the diversity in our team as a real asset, because the project has countless different facets. We are currently working on a prototype, which we are using to take measurements and build new genes into our bacterium. Everyone has their own task, but we help each other wherever possible.
So that’s the informative bit; let’s get on with the real story.
We’d all heard great things about the iGEM and how easy synthetic biology is. Building extra genes, strands of DNA, into bacteria was a piece of cake, they said. If you’d ask team member Harm about this now, I think he’d have something very different to say. He’s just spent three months trying to build one gene into our bacterium and still hasn’t managed.
Whenever we ask him, he mutters something incomprehensible about promoters and rushes off to get some coffee. Synthetic biology isn’t like playing with Lego. You sometimes spend a week working on something without solid results and without knowing why. We tried to help Harm by taping his Petri dish with colonies to the ceiling, but unfortunately it didn’t seem to help at all...
So what are we doing? Well obviously we’re generating energy at the point where fresh water flows into salt water. A
built on the Afsluitdijk causeway a year ago is currently testing the technology. They are using chemically produced selective membranes (a very fine filter), but these are very expensive and need regular changing. We want to use bacteria to produce a living membrane that will last forever. Bacteria are able to survive in the IJsselmeer (a major lake bordered by the causeway), and can even extract enough energy to repair any damage they sustain, in much the same way that a graze would heal. I’ll explain how this works next week.
In addition to the experiments, we have also made some less frustrating things, such as an informative card game, future scenarios and models to help people understand our project.
The card game is finished, so feel free to come along with some of your friends and we’ll give it a go! You can reach us by
or on twitter: @igemgroningen. The rest should be done by next week so I’ll tell you more then.
Text: Wiebrand de Boer
More information about Team Groningen is available on their
iGEM web page
University of Groningen crowdfunding page
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