iGEM 2018: the Biotechnological Battle in Boston

I think for most people university consists of two things: a social life and studying. On the other hand, some people do try to rid themselves of the lazy student stereotype by throwing some sports in there; other times, an extracurricular activity is chosen. My choice? Starting a blog. Though other people often make better decisions than I do and one such person is Phillip Yesley, a classmate of my mine. He decided to get involved in something which has a much bigger buzz about it: the iGEM competition. This is a worldwide competition in which groups attempt to design a new, cutting edge biotechnological process. So, one sunny afternoon over some ice tea and a bag of jellies, we had a little chat to discuss what exactly him and his team are doing. 

What is it?

Before we get into the detail, it’s probably best to give you an overview of what iGEM is. It’s a competition in which the students involved work together to represent their institution – in this case the University of Groningen (RUG) – in an attempt to design a new biotechnological process. The students get full control over their project and they even have to secure funding for themselves. After designing the process, the teams travel to Boston where they compete to be crowned the winners; strike that, I meant they all compete to take part because that’s all that counts. 

Team RUG

The team itself consists of people from a variety of different backgrounds, even outside of the sciences. Some people are responsible for the lab work, others for securing funding and they even have an AI guy working on the website, Phillip assured me. So what exactly is their project? Without a doubt inspired by the beer culture of the Netherlands, the team decided to look at the waste produced during the production of beer. They did this as they wanted to use a resource which was in abundance, and which hadn’t previously been used.

The iGEM 2018 team for the RUG. Source: iGEM 2018.

Within the waste stream there is one main material: cellulose. By using this cellulose, they wanted to do something that had never been done before, yet at the same time was profitable and had a positive impact on the environment. Saying that, I think most people would like to come up with such an idea, even outside of the iGEM competition. Based on extensive literature research, they finally settled on one particular product: styrene. 

The broader scope

Unless you’ve never bought a new TV or something similar – in which case, I’d be surprised if you possessed the necessary technology to read this – you will have definitely used polystyrene before. Polystyrene is essentially a lot of styrene molecules joined together, which creates the plastic that we all know and love. Sadly, it is one of the many plastics which originates from fossil fuels, making it both non-biodegradable and non-renewable, while simultaneously having a large carbon footprint. 

Phillip recognised that the project could raise some ethical dilemmas; after all, they’re using new technology to streamline what can be considered a harmful process. However, he argued that plastics will never be fully environmentally friendly, and the demand for plastics with such properties won’t decrease, leaving a tricky situation: streamline the process and make it as environmentally friendly as possible; or try and develop a biodegradable plastic with such properties, the latter of which is more difficult. The development of a new plastic puts a lot of pressure on scientists, while removing responsibility from the user. It’s certainly important for people to become more responsible for their own waste, regardless of scientific advancements, and this is a point Philip agreed on. If people are going to use these plastics anyway, why not reduce their impact on the environment as much as we can? He quickly added that they’re careful not to try and sell a global solution, but are adamant in helping to escape our dependence on fossil fuels.

The development stage

As I’m starting to make progress on my bachelor’s thesis, I can already assure you that in science, things take a very long time to do. That’s why right now, the team is starting to finish up the design phase of the project. He highlighted how the life science students are at centre stage at the moment, preparing the experiments to get things moving.

The main idea is to make two strains of yeast: one will be optimised to breakdown cellulose, and the other to make styrene from glucose, which is one of the products when cellulose is broken down. The first step is to make the cellulose degrading strain. Then it will be subject to a month of experiments, causing the strain to evolve, after which the more successful cellulose degrading strains will be selected. Normally these processes are first designed on a computer, before being brought into the lab. 

The team preparing cultures in the lab.

Chemical factories

However, the development is just the start, and the method they’re using to make the styrene is actually quite cutting edge. The enzymes they use are attached to a protein which is attached to a yeast cell. An enzyme is basically a chemical factory on a molecular scale: you put a reactant in and it gives you a product. This is advantageous, as all of the reactions occur next to each other, meaning that the reactions are more likely to happen and at a quicker rate, thereby increasing the efficiency. You can even expand the factory analogy here: if the first step of the process is on one side of the factory and the next step on the other, it’s going to take a lot longer to happen than if they’re in proximity to one another. 

The next steps

The project comes to a heads in October, but is that the end of the road for the iGEM team? Phillip stated that while it would be great to generate more interest in utilising cellulose, he would likely venture into a completely new challenge if he were to go into research, though he couldn’t comment on the wishes of his teammates. Saying that, he sung the praises of iGEM and what it stands for: making biotechnology as open as possible. While I imagine they’re very excited to get going with the project, the prospect of missing the summer by spending all their time indoors must somewhat sour the experience; I know I’m particularly bitter about the fact that I have to join the rat race soon. Right now though, I’m thinking of dusting off the old cheerleader uniform, in the hopes of bringing team RUG one step closer to the crown. 


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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.