An ambitious plan to create a yeast cell that will turn cellulose into styrene, the building block of polystyrene plastics, has brought success to the University of Groningen team participating in this year’s iGEM competition. With a gold medal, second place in the ‘Manufacturing’ section and first prize in the ‘Measurements’ category, they beat most of their 350+ competitors – and enjoyed themselves a lot.
It is more than a week after the end of the ‘Jamboree’, the five day conference that is the culmination of the annual iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machine) competition. Rianne Prins (MSc Medical and Pharmaceutical Drug Innovation) and Jens Schepers (MSc Ecology and Evolution) still look a little dazed after a summer spent in the lab and a recent week-long trip to Boston. In the Linnaeusborg canteen, they talk about their iGEM experience.
In the competition, teams from all over the world compete to ‘rewire’ a micro-organism using genetic techniques, making it do something new. The aim of the competition is to introduce students to genetic engineering and everything that goes with it (from fundraising to the assessment of the environmental impact), and to increase the number of genetic building blocks, called ‘bio-bricks’. iGEM collects these bio-bricks and makes them available to the biotech community.
The University of Groningen team decided to produce ‘
the greenest Lego blocks
’ ever, by designing a yeast cell that can produce styrene from cellulose, a waste product from breweries, for example. The world production of Lego blocks results in the equivalent of a staggering 300 kilograms of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide per minute, and the team believed that a more sustainable production method was needed. This would be a styrene-producing yeast cell, dubbed ‘Styrene Steve’.
‘We wanted a single yeast cell that would turn cellulose into styrene’, explains Schepers. ‘Quite often, these reactions are divided over different cells, so you need transfers to get the entire conversion done, which is inefficient’. To accomplish their ambitious aim, the group had to transfer five genes – which would break down the cellulose into glucose – into the yeast cells, and one other gene that was essential to the process that turns glucose into styrene.
The team began its preparations in February, but the lab work only
started last July
. Twelve students with different educational backgrounds – biotechnology, ecology, pharmaceutical sciences, biomedical sciences, chemistry and artificial intelligence – each spent about half a year on the project. This was an experience they would not have missed for the world, Prins and Schepers agree. ‘Working together as a team to do things like outreach and fundraising were great’, says Schepers. ‘I got to explain our work to primary school kids’, adds Prins.
However, a lot of the time was spent in the lab, getting the work done and documenting all the steps for
the competition’s Wikipage
– which would determine part of their final score. It all went well and the team got a huge amount of work done. Apart from the genetic modification, they had to show that their system worked by measuring the production of styrene. Prins: ‘It was so cool to see that our idea actually worked in the lab’. ‘And we described how the process could be scaled up to a bioreactor’, adds Schepers. ‘We showed that the entire process only produces water and styrene. All organic waste can be recycled in the bioreactor’.
With their data on a poster and compiled into a 20 minute presentation, the team went to the Jamboree, which started on 24 October, at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. ‘There were about 4,000 participants from 343 teams, and the halls for the poster presentations were huge’, says Schepers. Two team members had to do the presentation in front of six judges and a number of other competitors. Some hard questions were asked during the ten-minute discussion. Schepers: ‘Styrene cannot be recycled, so we had to explain why we wanted to produce it’. The team got their point across and were awarded a Gold Medal for their project – as did about one third of all teams.
The team members went to plenty of other presentations themselves, checking out the competition in the ‘Manufacturing’ section in which the Groningen team competed, or projects close to their own specialization. ‘Most teams were very interdisciplinary, not just biotechnology students, but also ecologists, chemists and even designers’. The Groningen team had two students from Artificial Intelligence, who combined modelling with producing the art work for their iGEM Wikipage submissions and the presentations. ‘Each day ended with workshops, often organized by biotech companies. Or by iGEM themselves, or even the FBI’, says Schepers.
In the end, the Styrene Steve team was nominated for best Poster, Presentation, Model and Measurement, and competed for the overall prize in Manufacturing with a team from Munich. They were announced runners up in the Manufacturing section and won the Best Measurement category, the prize for the lab work. Prins: ‘We were quite happy with that, the Munich team ended up as runners up for the overall iGEM prize. They had a team of 20 and spent a full year on the project’.
The experience is one they cherish, and it has taught both students a lot. ‘I have decided I really like biotechnology, and want to work in this sector’, says Prins. Schepers, who is an ecologist, is also considering adjusting his career plans, moving ‘away from ecological fieldwork, and more towards the assessment of innovative projects’. Both graduated during the iGEM project and are now looking for jobs. ‘But we also need to tidy up the iGEM lab’, remarks Prins. ‘In fact, that’s what we have to do next today’.
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