2015 marks the first year that a student team from the University of Pretoria (UP) participated in the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition and only the third time that an African team participated in this prestigious event.
The International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition which started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) annually draws hundreds of high school and university teams from around the world to compete in what has become the premier international synthetic biology student competition. Synthetic biology is an emerging field that combines modern molecular biology and systems engineering concepts to develop innovative solutions, such as cancer-targeting viruses, novel biosensors, or even DIY biological 3D printers.
The Forest Molecular Genetics (FMG) Programme, with support from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), sponsored seven undergraduate and one BSc Honours student to participate in the iGEM 2015 competition. The team (Pretoria_UP) was mentored by Dr Steven Hussey and additionally advised by Prof Zander Myburg and Dr Eshchar Mizrachi from the Department of Genetics and the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at UP.
Pretoria_UP team representatives, Mr Gert Pietersen and Ms Nomakula Zim won a bronze medal at the 2015 iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston, MA (24-28 September) where they presented their “Switch-coli” project to an international audience. They gained valuable insight into the iGEM organisation, which they will share with the rest of the team in preparation for the 2016 competition where the team aims to make their mark. The team used DNA BioBricks, the standard parts of synthetic biology, to design a genetic program controlling bacterial chemotaxis (movement in response to a chemical gradient). Their design improves a “bio-tweet” principle by the WITS-CSIR_SA team in 2011. This means that motile bacteria travel from a sender position to a recipient position, turn around synchronously only when most of them have arrived at the recipient, and then travel back to the sender, relaying information on the state of the recipient.
They registered seven new BioBricks in the Standard Registry of DNA parts, synthesized six and submitted three BioBrick DNA samples to the Registry. They also compiled a comprehensive wiki of their project, delivered an oral presentation, as well as a poster, to the iGEM community and judges. In addition, the team reached out to Grade 11 learners in the previously disadvantaged community of Mamelodi, educating them about synthetic biology and conducting a survey assessing differences in awareness, perception, attitude, and future projections of synthetic biology among learners from schools in previously disadvantaged and advantaged backgrounds. This work comprised the team’s Human Practices portfolio and revealed striking socio-economic influences on synthetic biology acceptance and awareness.
The Pretoria_UP iGEM initiative is a community project within the FMG Programme, which aims to attract and develop scarce skills in synthetic biology innovation. The vision of this project is to participate in iGEM regularly and to encourage other South African institutions to form teams, and thereby stimulate a new generation of students who will develop synthetic biology solutions for the South African Bio- economy.