At this year's International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, a team of students from the University of Groningen won the grand prize for engineering the bacterium Bacillus subtilis to detect rotten meat.
The team was one of 72 student groups that gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) during November 2-5 to compete in the 2012 iGEM World Championship. The event was the final venue for the synthetic biology students from Asian, European, and American universities to showcase their designs for simple biological systems made from standard, interchangeable DNA parts.
Comprised of 11 students and six faculty advisors, Team Groningen of The Netherlands engineered a strain of B. subtilis to include a promoter that regulated the expression of a pigment reporter. This reporter is visible to the naked eye when the bacterium encounters rotten meat.
"We were thinking that it would be a great idea to make a system that could detect when meat is spoiled," said van Lente. "This was also an opportunity to make people think about the amounts of food they throw away."
Currently, we assess food using the “best before” dating system, which leads us to throw away 1.3 billion tons of food—about a third of global food production. The bacterial reporter system, called Food Warden, would indicate when food is safe to eat even when the “best before” date has passed.
Team Slovenia took second place for their targeted drugs delivery system, which dispenses multiple drugs at different time intervals. Third prize went to the team from Paris Bettencourt, which engineered bio-sensing cells that could self-destruct before any DNA could leak into the environment.
For the first time, the competition also featured an entrepreneurial division. Like other iGEM competitors, students in the new division worked and competed over the summer to use synthetic biology for new science. In addition, they designed startup companies to support their work. The 2012 entrepreneurial grand prize went to the team from the University of Alberta for its business Upcycled Aromatics. The company uses principles of synthetic biology to fill the demand for environmentally friendly and high-value aromatic chemicals.
"Another impressive team was the team from Beijing," said van Lente. The Beijing team manipulated Escherichia coli with DNA and light so the bacterium gave off a protein that scientists could use to make high-resolution pictures.
Despite the temptation to investigate these other projects more closely, van Lente and his teammates are remain focused on their own project, handling the publicity it gotten this week.
His team also won the iGEMer's Prize, Best Food & Energy Project, Best Poster, and shared Best Presentation with University College London. Other iGEM 2012 winners include:
- Paris Bettencourt for Best Environment Project,
- Slovenia for Best Health or Medicine Project,
- LMU-Munich for Best New Application Project,
- Utah State for Best Manufacturing Project,
- Tokyo Tech for Best Information Processing Project, and
- Calgary Best Human Practices Advance.