iGEM 2018: The grand prize winners share their experience
iGEM competitions are always exciting, and this year’s Jamboree was no exception. iGEM Marburg won the grand prize on the overgrad category with their project on making Vibrio natriegens a new workhorse for synbio applications. Two of the 17 team members were kind enough to tell us how iGEM looked like through their eyes.
Kostas Vavitsas: You are working to establish Vibrio natriegens as a chassis for synthetic biology. Do you think you will convince researchers worldwide to adopt the new organism?
Alexandra Seiffermann: I think E.coli has served us well for many years, but the old saying ‘’leave well enough alone’’ doesn’t apply to today’s world. With pressing issues such as the increasing antibiotic resistance of pathogens, we simply must do whatever is possible to accelerate the rate in which we solve the world’s problems. A new, faster chassis like Vibrio natriegens, with its doubling time of 7 minutes, might be the tool we are missing to achieve these goals in time.
We have witnessed professors in our own university join the movement and adopt this organism, once they saw how easy and safe it is to work with, so we believe that other researchers will follow suit. Who wouldn’t want their lab to produce three times as many results?
Daniel Bauersachs: E. coli was chosen as a chassis organism because it’s easy to cultivate, grows fast, produces reliable results and is able to take up DNA to be transformed for molecular biological applications. V. natriegens also offers all these features, with the significant advantage that it grows much faster than E. coli, which, as Alexandra mentioned, is a feature of growing importance as time goes by. But there are also other aspects, like for example V. natriegens’ capacity for natural transformation, which avoids the time and money consumed on making competent cells, facilitating everyday laboratory work and make it a suitable replacement for E. coli.
Regarding your question on whether other researchers are going to use V. natriegens, I can only say that it was very well received by the scientific community during the Giant Jamboree and I heard from several working groups that they will start working with this new chassis. This makes me optimistic on how many people will adopt it.
It will be similar to the introduction of any new method or technology. There will be the pioneers, which will gladly adopt this new chassis, thereby further improving and optimizing it for the lab work, and the ones are too sceptic or lazy to learn new methods and wait years before they start working with it. In the end it is everyone’s own decision, what group they belong to.
Kostas: Tell us in a few lines how did it feel being in the Giant Jamboree and how did you feel when the judges announced the Grand Prize?
Daniel: We were really looking forward to the Giant Jamboree, because we wanted to see the friends we met during the German, European and Eurasian meetup and were also curious for all the other projects and results.
The final really was like a rollercoaster ride. When we heard that we were nominated for the final presentation, we were freaking out, because we didn’t expect that. And when our competitor Munich was nominated for best wiki, we were sure we would lose. But during the nominations I saw that we were nominated for and won more prices, and that made me pretty sure that we would win.
Alexandra: I was also excited for the giant jamboree; we hosted the German meetup in Marburg so we got to know other teams quite well. The sense of community in the conference blew me away, it didn’t feel like we were competitors – instead like we all shared a passion for synthetic biology.
When I saw we were finalists, I was speechless. Even though I knew how hard our team had worked and how much we sacrificed, I also knew the other teams put immense work into their projects and it really showed. We were so impressed by the other competitors in the overgrad category, especially Vilnius, Delft and München, I couldn’t believe it when I saw Marburg on the list! Even after I saw the nominations, I didn’t expect us to win.
Kostas: Other than yours, which was your favourite iGEM project?
Alexandra: My favourite project was San Diego’s Epinoma, which actually comes from an undergraduate team. They created a non-invasive method to detect cancer based on the DNA’s methylation pattern. With synthetic biology and machine learning this team has created a cheap and sensitive cancer detection method which could become a regularly used screening method, capable of detecting cancer in its early stages, thus saving lives.
Daniel: Yes, that project was really impressive. My favorite project was iGEM Munich’s. They developed an alternative method for phage therapy, thereby producing phages from a DNA template in a cell free system. This allows the production of phages independent of the pathogen in clinically relevant titers.
Kostas: What did you personally gain out of participating in iGEM and what does the future hold?
Daniel: I learned how much organization is necessary to run a successful project and how hard it is to work in a big group. In addition to this I improved in the lab by learning a lot of new methods and to work with a new organism. Altogether the largest takeaway for me was learning how to grow a new project, from finding the idea to the realization and marketing.
Of course we had some trouble at the beginning because we used a new organism, had to adapt all our methods to it and get used to the fast growth rate, for example when we prepared competent cells. But I think the biggest challenge was to raise the money for our project, because iGEM is not that known in Germany and we had big issues to convince companies to support us. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, so we finally raised enough money.
We have diverse, but big plans for the future. Some people of our team will publish papers about our project soon. I for one will investigate the protein expression in V. natriegens, because I want to find an industrial application for it.
Alexandra: This was my first time working on a project in a big group too, iGEM really shows you what it takes to create and develop a project. My biggest gain, unexpectedly, was how iGEM turned out to be a journey of self-discovery. I gained insight into what my strengths are and what I can work on. My biggest challenge was the logistics of the Vibrigens InterLab. Communicating with so many teams and making sure everyone had the support they need was hard at times, but ultimately very rewarding. As Daniel said, some people in our team will continue working on our project.
Daniel Bauersachs was born 1995 in Frankfurt. He is a MSc student in Molecular and Cellular Biology. In the future, Daniel wants to do his Ph.D in a foreign country and eventually run his own company.
Alexandra Seiffermann was born 1995 in Lisbon. She is a BSc in Biology with a course in business management at the Phillips University Marburg. Alexandra plans on spending the next year doing internships to gain more experience before starting a Master’s degree in Biotechnology.