iGEM: Local Scientists Compete in International Student Competition

iGEM-Team 2019 visited the Marburg Town Hall

July 19, 2019

On July 17, the Marburg iGEM team accepted an invitation from Mayor Thomas Spies. The young scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology and the University of Marburg talked to Mayor Thomas Spies, First county councillor Marian Zachow, and Frank Hüttemann, Economic Development Officer of the district. They presented their current project for the international student competition iGEM and talked about how the project could be sustainably supported in the future.

The abbreviation iGEM stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine. The iGEM Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to progress in the field of Synthetic Biology and to an open and collaborative way of working. Starting at MIT in Boston in 2003, it has become a flagship in the field of Synthetic Biology with more than 6,000 participants from over 40 countries. The idea behind synthetic biology is to equip living cells in the laboratory with new functions and create usable biological systems. Every year, the iGEM competition selects the best "biological design" and motivates many thousands of young researchers worldwide to achieve remarkable results. At the end of each year, the final "giant jamboree" event is held in Boston.

Since 2012, a Marburg team of master's and bachelor's students from a wide variety of scientific disciplines has been taking part every year - and with great success, culminating in an overall victory for the Marburg team in 2018. The participants of the team 2019 are students of the University of Marburg, the Justus-Liebig-University Gießen and the Technical University Mittelhessen. Some of them are now employed at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology and will complete their Bachelor's or Master's degrees there. Also four former iGEM team members had come into the city hall, in order to support their successors.

Again, the young scientists from Marburg have set themselves high goals. Starting from a phototrophic organism (i.e. that drives photosynthesis), they plan to develop a "chassis", the fastest growing phototrophic proto-cell. After genetic modifications, depending on the desired application, this protocell could be used in order to produce substances, such as bio fuels. 

The team concentrated on the cyanobacterial strain Synechococcus elongatus UTEX 2973” that shows a relatively high doubling rate. In contrast to conventional heterotrophic model systems such as E. coli or Saccharomyces cerevisiae, this organism can use CO2 from the atmosphere to synthesize economically attractive chemical compounds.

Before Synechococcus could be used as a model for synthetic biology, many obstacles stand in the way. The prize won in 2018, a biotech robot, helps in this respect. After being trained to automatically isolate bacterial colonies, it was able to speed up the work process considerably. All results are openly available to the worldwide research community.  An interdisciplinary discussion of questions on safety and ethics of synthetic biology and conducting a dialogue with the public is equally important. 

"Sure it's a lot of work, but it`s also much more than that, “ Vinca Seiler, coordinator of the team describes. “ It is simply awesome to be involved with so many different people from all kinds of different fields who are interested in the same project In addition to the laboratory techniques, it gives deep insights into how research actually works, from the acquisition of laboratory material and sponsorship money to the communication of the results.”

Go, iGEM team Marburg 2019! The best of luck with the Giant jamboree in November!

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