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TECNOx: A Latin American Syn Bio (and more) student competition

Andrés Ochoa Cruz1, Fernán Federici2, Raik Grünberg3, Alejandro Daniel Nadra4, Pablo Rodríguez5 and Ignacio Enrique Sánchez4

1 Syntechbio, Arcturus Biocloud, USA.

2 Departamento de Genética Molecular y Microbiología, Facultad de Ciencias Biológicas, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago de Chile, Chile.

3 IO Biolabs, Germany.

4 Facultad de Ciencias Exactas y Naturales, Universidad de Buenos Aires and IQUIBICEN-CONICET, Argentina.

5 Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales Gino Germani, Universidad de Buenos Aires, CONICET, Argentina.


What is it?

TECNOx is a competition that is motivating teams of undergraduate students to find technological solutions to socially relevant problems in Latin America. The competition takes six months, it is targeted to students of various disciplines, including, but not limited to, Synthetic Biology. The motto of the competition is “Latin American students applying technologies to address regional issues”. In the next few paragraphs, we will walk through our slogan in order to explain what we are trying to achieve.


Why a “Latin American competition”?

If the phrase “synthetic biology competition involving teams of undergraduate students” rings a bell, it is because this is the slogan of the iGEM competition. TECNOx draws heavily from the very successful iGEM competition (www.igem.org). iGEM has been the engine behind the rapid development of the field and its international community by facilitating the access to core components, standard protocols for DNA fabrication and the use of design specifications.

Invertered americaWhy then not just take part in iGEM? In fact, most members of the TECNOx organizing committee and teams are or have been enthusiastic participants of iGEM. Nevertheless, we felt a growing consensus that there was a need and room for an alternative or complementary competition format that betters caters to our region’s circumstances. The participation of Latin American teams has been very scarce due to the high costs and incompatible timing with local teaching agendas in South America. The high costs associated to registration fees exacerbated by unfavorable exchange rates and high travel and lodging costs involve a considerable part of the total budget.

By contrast, TECNOx, operating on a smaller and somewhat more regional scale, aims to avoid this entrance barrier by not asking for any registration fee at all and making the TECNOx jamboree a low-budget event. TECNOx also reduces operating costs by not storing and distributing biological parts and by encouraging teams to share renewable resources such as plasmids. The iGEM jamboree takes place after teams perform the bulk of their lab work over the Northern hemisphere summer. However, in most Latin American countries June, July and August are filled with lectures and exams whereas the longest holidays take place around December or January. For this reason, we planned the first TECNOx jamboree for April 2016, right after the Austral summer break. This, in fact, allows students to take part in both iGEM and TECNOx, benefiting from both experiences. We think that, for the time being, this optimizes the community building aspects of TECNOx.

TechnoX logoWe do enjoy iGEM and its spirit. Nevertheless, TECNOx does not aim to become a local and cheaper version of iGEM. Instead, it aims to evolve from it and complement it with other open platforms for engineering such as Arduino, Raspberry PI and digital fabrication. TECNOx is more than a synthetic biology-based educational initiative; it seeks to develop a local multidisciplinary community and a technological platform that integrates this field with nanotechnology, digital fabrication, electrical engineering, robotics and design, among many other disciplines. We would like to stimulate the growth of a large and diverse community of technologists in Latin America based on the use of shareable, scalable, efficient, economic and engaging technologies. Our logo was indeed inspired by Joaquin Torres Garcia´s “Inverted America”, which is often taken as a symbol for regional focus. As it is usually said in this context, “South is our North”.

Why undergraduate students?

As researchers in small scientific systems working with limited budgets, we felt that the best way to have a positive impact in our society is through a larger community of technically skilled people. We often meet highly educated undergrads that wish to use part of their time building something useful to others and learning by doing this, rather than dedicating 100% of their time to attending lectures and passing exams. We believe that technical proficiency, creativity, and leadership are not exclusive to graduates or PhDs. We reason that our universities, science ministries and research institutes should embrace all the available talent. A thousand undergraduate students can do much more than a hundred graduate students, a few postdocs or one career researcher. What’s more, when we combine their passion and their time with their various levels of expertise and experience, this profoundly changes the perspective of what we think is possible and of what we can eventually accomplish.


Why only applied projects?

The Latin American synthetic biology community is still small relative to those in US and Europe, so TECNOx is focusing on applied projects that build on and complement classic academic research. Also, the pressing economic, health and social issues present in our environment strongly suggested that TECNOx teams should focus on tackling a specific and socially relevant Latin American problem of their choice. This also might help to boost the entrepreneur scene in the region.


Why include technologies beyond synthetic biology?

Citizens do not care about technological disciplines. What they care about are safe, inexpensive, scalable and durable solutions for their immediate problems. Once implemented, most successful solutions usually involve multiple, interconnected technologies. This said, synthetic biology has all the makings of a disruptive technology: It emphasizes modularity, design specifications and characterization of core components and elemental functions, so that most projects yield, at the very least, some useful building blocks. It also builds an enthusiastic clique of practitioners ready to share their know-how with each other. When planning TECNOx, we realized that several emerging technologies promote community sharing of building blocks. Examples are information technology, Arduino, nanotechnology and 3D printing. Although, in this first edition, most of the teams use synthetic biology as their main technique, the information technology track already got started. Our plan is to encourage Latin American leaders in robotics, nanotechnology and 3D printing to join in for 2016.

In the long term, we imagine widely (and wildly) interdisciplinary TECNOx teams that integrate synthetic biology with other fields, with a particular emphasis on projects that combine open platforms for engineering hardware, software and biology. Thus, TECNOx projects would benefit from traits of biological systems such as detecting molecules at low concentration, creating robust structures of high complexity and storing energy in efficient formats; and capabilities of electronic devices such as precise information processing, remote communication and digital data sharing. Multidisciplinary approaches not only trigger discussion on unexplored interfaces but also speed up innovation.

What are TECNOx teams up to?

Students work in interdisciplinary teams and are invited to tackle a specific Latin American problem of their choice, using disruptive technologies. At the end, teams should have a product with a rigorously documented process. Projects are expected to produce significant advances (according to the proposed goals) within competition times. Projects should emerge from the teams and not from the teams’ instructors.

The full description of the projects and advances is recorded in the wikis for the individual teams. Their contents, aesthetics and up-to-date status depend on each team (hey, guys! remember that its effectiveness will be evaluated). As a summary, we will give a title-like description of all ongoing projects.

Current projects include “classic” transcriptional regulators-based biosensors:

  • Detection of landmines through the stimulus of the fruit fly by TNT-sensing microorganisms, based on the explosive’s chemical vapors released to the surface (TECNOx UnNaCol, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Colombia).
  • An engineered organism for bioremediation of mercury, based on the recently discovered MER operon (BIOTEC-Manaus, Universidade Federal do Amazonas, Brazil).
  • Glyphosate and AMPA detection in food, soil and water, based on metabolites of these compounds (Faubáticos, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina)
  • A lead biosensor (Universidad Argentina de la Empresa, Argentina)
  • A melatonine (key hormone in circadian rhythm’s regulation) biosensor in urine (Chronosense, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina)

And not-so-classic biosensors based on riboswitches such as:

  • Uremic hemolytic syndrome detector (TECNOx FFyB, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina)
  • Detection of Dengue virus infection in humans (TECNOnautas, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina)

Moreover, the team TECNOx UNSAM (Universidad Nacional de San Martín, Argentina) is designing a Pseudomonas fluorescent biofilm that can prevent the growth of unwanted organisms in water-immersed structures.

At the frontier between syn bio and nanotech, TECNOx Cuernavaca (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, México) will develop a self-assembling rotavirus-based scaffold as a multipurpose biotechnological tool, applied to pigment production and styrene degradation. TECNOx Uniandes (Universidad de los Andres, Colombia) is building a bacterial cyborg that will convert biological to electrical signals, with applications in mercury detection.

TECNOticos from Facultad de Ciencias Exactas y Naturales, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina, is developing a mobile application to aid citizens to track and manage electrical consumption to avoid blackouts.

In all cases, the focus is on solving a local/regional problem rather than developing new methods, and biased towards producing a viable solution.

How do participants benefit from TECNOx?

TECNOx is an unusual technological event in that it is focused on undergraduate students. At least 50% of team members should be undergrad students and should have a leading role in identifying their problem of interest, developing a solution, defining goals and methods, executing the project and presenting results to their peers and society. The presence of graduate students and senior biotechnologists as members of such unconventional teams facilitates work in an academic environment. While the team’s project is important, team members also go through the equally important educational process of self-organization and planning as a team, gaining access to a workspace, ordering reagents, raising funds, overcoming unexpected bottlenecks, learning about relevant regulations, interacting with their target users, the media and other social agents, and much more.

We expect this abrupt introduction into project management to unveil a large gap between the curricula of university degrees and the skills that are necessary to carry on a successful technology project. This is why, in addition to team follow-up and orientation, we started to build our own set of TECNOx-related lectures and workshops. First, we have organized technology-specific courses or lectures on synthetic biology, nanotechnology, genomics and 3D printing. Second, we tried to put teams in contact with experts on project management skills, including lean and agile thinking, entrepreneurship, proposal writing, and science fiction as a scientific tool. Last, we tried to offer hands-on experience with several communication tools, such as visual thinking, public speaking, public communication of science and scientific stand-up monologues. We hope this is helpful to the teams, both during the competition and as career-related skills.

What is the TECNOx jamboree about?

In April 2016, all TECNOx teams will present their projects, results and prototypes in a final event at Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina. First and foremost, we would like the jamboree to be a melting pot for building a community of Latin American technologists. In addition to TECNOx teams, we invited entrepreneurs, biohackers, innovation experts, and leaders of interdisciplinary technological projects from public and private institutions of our region. Financial help from the Latin American Center for Interdisciplinary Education (www.celfi.gob.ar) is being key in helping many speakers attend the jamboree. Multiple disruptive technologies will be presented in order to build a truly interdisciplinary community, with an emphasis on synthetic biology but also with presentations of applied projects using information technology, nanotechnology and 3D printing. We avoided thematic sessions and planned roundtables and social events to maximize unexpected interactions and the chances for new, socially relevant applied projects.

As expected from a competition, TECNOx will award distinctions and prizes to teams. However, our focus will not be on pointing out the best Biobrick or poster, neither on choosing an overall winner. The goal of TECNOx is to apply technologies to socially relevant projects, so we find any degree of success from a team highly valuable. The judging criteria will be largely focused on how well the project addresses and solves a problem. After considering the technical aspects, social impact and project management, the TECNOx judges will place teams on one of three quality categories. The categories are called, from lower to higher quality, Colibrí abeja (bee hummingbird), Pingüino (penguin) and Cóndor (Andean condor). We do wish all teams would be declared Cóndores by the judges. Since all teams will be special in one way or another, TECNOx will also award specific prizes aimed at highlighting specific achievements of a team. The prizes are pieces by Latin American artists and scientists and will focus on social relevance, community roots, interdisciplinary creativity, technical implementation, communication, teamwork and collaboration and contagious wholeheartedness. In any case, we do hope that all teams learn from the process and share their experience in the jamboree.

A glimpse into the future of TECNOx

We envision a crowded venue full of enthusiastic students willing to communicate their work to other students and their surrounding community. A space where former TECNOx participants present their brand new devices or startups to a bunch of students, people from industry, ONG and governmental organizations. A place where the latter three may interact with academic people to match tools and skills with unsolved problems and needs. A place where students gain hands-on training in research and development. An experience where interdisciplinary teams of students do not retreat into the “gated communities” of their own disciplines as it is often happening  during career development. We envision an experience of working in horizontal groups that will train students in an integral way about making a project going ahead. We hope the opportunity of early interaction with people from other disciplines and countries will contribute to developing long-term collaboration networks.

We hope that the challenge and fun of the event will lead to a second edition of TECNOx in 2016-17 and will connect local communities throughout the region. We hope that TECNOx keeps rolling, growing and evolving in ways that go beyond the limited imagination of its founders and will have an impact on the scientific, social and entrepreneur landscape of the Latin American region.


We would like to thank Sebastián Galimberti for IT support, Laura Olalde and Javier Lorenzón for image design, Natalia Gorojovsky for help with communication to the community, Esteban Mocskos for help with the software track and Gonzalo Zabala, Ariel Aptekmann and Manuel Giménez for help in the initial stages of the project.

Bursaries are available until February 10th at http://www.celfi.gob.ar/programas/detalle?p=42


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