Ready to compete

Student club prepares teams to take part in international competition in synthetic biology and grapples with inadequate funding

USP researchers work to synthesize spider silk proteins (left) from microalgae

Eduardo Cesar USP researchers work to synthesize spider silk proteins from microalgaeEduardo Cesar

A group of students at the University of São Paulo (USP) has specialized in organizing teams to take part in international science competitions. Since 2012, the Synthetic Biology Club at USP has prepared undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and faculty members to compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM), held annually in the United States. Two years ago, a team that also included members from São Paulo State University (Unesp) and the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) won a bronze medal for their project, which proposed a method of diagnosing chronic kidney disease (CKD) using biomarkers. Two other teams that were organized at USP during meetings sponsored by the club will compete at iGEM 2016, scheduled for October 27-31, 2016, in Boston.

Inaugurated in 2004 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the competition aims to promote the advancement of research on synthetic biology, a field that designs biological devices such as sensors, equipment, and software to solve problems related to the environment, health, food, and energy. Over 300 teams of students and researchers from institutes of higher education worldwide are expected to attend the Boston event this year. “The Synthetic Biology Club at USP serves to bring people together to conduct projects, organize teams for competitions, and promote discussions of new ideas involving research into molecular and synthetic biology,” explains Otto Heringer, an undergraduate majoring in chemistry at USP and one of the club coordinators.

One of the teams that will be going to iGEM 2016 employed panels of medium density fiberboard, acrylic sheets, and silicon molds to hand-build an electrophoresis tank and a microcentrifuge, equipment that permits the separation of molecules and biological samples in laboratory experiments. A study initiated in January 2016 employs these devices in the development of an antimicrobial burn dressing. Through genetic manipulation, marine algae can be made to synthesize spider silk proteins, which are used as a raw material. The team, which comprises researchers from USP, Unesp, and the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), will present its preliminary results at iGEM. “One of the iGEM categories awards teams that design their own hardware. So in addition to competing with our project, we hope to win a medal for the equipment we’ve built,” says João Vitor Dutra Molino, doctoral candidate at the USP School of Pharmaceutical Sciences (FCF-USP) and team member.

left to right: Part of the team that will compete in Boston: Mireia Mitter, Tiago Lubiana, Allan Tanaka, João Vitor Dutra Molino, and Lívia Camargo

Eduardo Cesar Left to right: Part of the team that will compete in Boston: Mireia Mitter, Tiago Lubiana, Allan Tanaka, João Vitor Dutra Molino, and Lívia CamargoEduardo Cesar

The teams who compete at iGEM do not necessarily need to present final results or prototypes. But it is expected that they will demonstrate their project’s potential and present preliminary findings. “We’ve started the second phase of our research, which involves expressing the spider silk protein in the microalgae. We’re racing against time to wrap up this phase by the time of the competition,” says Molino, who has taken part in earlier iGEM events.

The 25-member team, which includes professors, researchers, and undergraduate and graduate students, faces not only scientific hurdles; they have also struggled to find funding for the project and cover the expenses of the members who will travel to the United States. “I’ve contributed to the team by reaching out to companies that can help us by donating money or resources needed for the research, like reagents,” says Lívia Seno Ferreira Camargo, a post-doctoral fellow at FCF-USP and one of the team coordinators. The group’s first challenge was registering their project for the event. “Event registration at iGEM costs $5,000 per team. We obtained support from the multinational pharmaceutical firm Merck, in Germany, which paid for our registration.”

The researchers also launched a crowdfunding campaign on the Internet and managed to raise some R$5,000. USP kicked in over R$20,000 to cover expenses for its students. According to Camargo, Brazil’s low rate of participation at iGEM is explained in part by the challenges encountered in arranging adequate funding. Only three Brazilian teams will be competing for a prize in 2016. “There are a lot of synthetic biology research groups in Brazil that would be qualified to compete at iGEM but they can’t afford to register and participate,” she says.

Electrophoresis equipment made by the group

Eduardo Cesar Electrophoresis equipment made by the groupEduardo Cesar

Replicated model
USP has a tradition of attending iGEM thanks to student organization. “One way of organizing is through clubs, whose Brazilian model was born on the USP campus in the state capital and replicated at its campuses in Lorena and Ribeirão Preto, as well as at other universities, like the Federal University of Amazonas [UFAM] and Unesp in Assis,” explains Otto Heringer, who points out that student clubs are common at universities abroad.

For the first time, undergraduate and graduate students at the USP Engineering School of Lorena (EEL-USP) have organized to take on a project for iGEM. Coordinated by geneticist Fernando Segato, professor at EEL, the team is working to produce the components of petroleum-based diesel fuel called alkanes, using Escherichia coli bacteria that have been genetically modified to resist fatty acids. This would enable production of oxygen-free oil that would enhance engine efficiency.

Another Brazilian project that will be presented at iGEM is now under development at UFAM in partnership with Amazonas State University (UEA), in Manaus. The group participated in iGEM 2014 and won a gold medal in its category by creating a strain of genetically modified bacteria that can detect, absorb, and break down mercury compounds found in water. The idea is to use these microorganisms – which, according to the researchers, could be called genetically modified machines – to rid the Amazon’s watersheds of this highly toxic heavy metal. The region’s rivers suffer mercury contamination primarily because the metal is utilized in gold mining.

The same team will now head to Boston to present a new phase in the study: the prototype of a bioreactor for cleaning mercury-contaminated water. The team raised R$42,000 towards its participation through a crowdfunding campaign and also drew support from private enterprise: Google gave R$15,000 and the Brazilian cosmetics firm Natura donated R$13,000. UFAM covered registration costs, while UEA helped its students by providing airfare. “Getting undergraduate students involved in competitions like iGEM has concrete benefits in training new researchers. They learn how to engage in teamwork and strive to put a practical spin on the knowledge they’ve learned in the classroom,” says Carlos Gustavo Nunes da Silva, professor of genetic engineering at UFAM and coordinator of the project, whose members include 10 students and three professors.