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New iGEM team to teach yeast cells to make bioplastic

12 July 2018

The UG team that entered this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, in which student teams use synthetic biology to give organisms new properties, began working full time on its entry this week. In their lab in Linnaeusborg, they want to teach yeast cells to convert cellulose into styrene, a building block for plastic.

Entering iGEM has become a tradition for the UG: every year a new team of students from different disciplines is assembled. The UG team even won the contest in 2012. It is really intended as a kind of summer school that gives students the opportunity to acquire new knowledge through a practical challenge. However, many teams now work on the challenge for the entire year.

For the Groningen team, the emphasis lies on the summer months. Until recently, the team members were busy with their studies, and iGEM was a question of the odd hour here and there. Since this week, the team has been working full time to equip a yeast cell with the genes needed to make styrene from cellulose. Cellulose is generally difficult to process: it is a waste product in brewing and forestry, for example: ‘That makes it a challenge to make a green raw material from it,’ says team leader Jens Schepers.

The first successful experiment | Photo iGEM-UG
The first successful experiment | Photo iGEM-UG

This raw material is styrene, a monomer that is used to make the plastic for Lego bricks, for example. The yeast cell needs to break down the cellulose into sugar and then convert this into styrene. It can already perform a number of steps in this process, but the team must add the missing ones.

To know exactly what the yeast cell contains, artificial intelligence student Bram Wiggers is working on a computer program that can analyse the cell’s DNA: ‘It was developed by the iGEM team from Heidelberg and works with neural networks.’ Working with other iGEM teams is one way that you can gain points in the contest. ‘With knowledge about the DNA, we want to get the yeast cell to evolve to make the right enzymes,’ Wiggers explains.

The lab work has begun | Photo Science LinX
The lab work has begun | Photo Science LinX

What can’t be changed in this way will have to be added to the cell using genetic techniques. This will be done in the lab. ‘We are still working on the first steps,’ explains biochemistry student Jan Marten Wielinga during a short tour: ‘Making buffers and the like, but also testing to see if we can get foreign DNA into the cell.’ The first attempt was unsuccessful, says pharmacy Master’s student Rianne Prins. She shows me a cell culture with tiny dots: colonies of bacteria, into which she has inserted a gene that makes the cells resistant to the antibiotic in the culture. These experiments will then need to be done with yeast.

Back in the team’s ‘office’ all eyes are on the crowdfunding page. The aim is to raise €3,000, 10% of the total budget. The rest is coming from the University and various funds and sponsors from the business community. They have already raised a tidy sum, but more must come in in the next weeks to cover all the costs (from the lab material to tickets to the actual contest in Boston, US).

The iGEM team’s office | Photo Science LinX
The iGEM team’s office | Photo Science LinX

The team has until the start of September to complete all their work and save it on the iGEM Wiki page. The Wiki freeze that will then take place is a notorious moment in the competition: the team will no longer be able to change the results and all that remains is to prepare for the trip to Boston, where the jamboree begins on 23 October. All participating teams will present their projects before the winner is announced. All being well, the Groningen team will at least manage to prove that the yeast has made styrene: the building block for the ‘greenest Lego brick in the world.’

Follow the iGEM-UG team on their iGEM Wiki page .

Donate to the team through the RUGsteunt website . The team will raffle off various prizes to the donors.

Last modified:07 May 2019 08.52 a.m.
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