EPFL places in the top ten at the 2022 iGEM competition

© iGEM EPFL 2022

© iGEM EPFL 2022

With their biodegradable aerogel that can provide an alternative to conventional insulation materials, the EPFL team took home the gold along with four category nominations at this year’s iGEM synthetic biology competition, held in late October.

Can synthetic biology be deployed to develop sustainable, environmentally responsible construction methods? That’s the question a team of 11 EPFL Bachelor’s and Master’s students set out to answer in the 2022 iGEM competition. The students pooled their knowledge from a variety of disciplines, including life sciences, mechanical engineering and architecture to design and present a novel technology. They began working on their project at the start of the spring semester. iGEM is an annual international competition in the field of synthetic biology – or the development of new biological systems – during which hundreds of student teams vie to develop solutions to real-world challenges. EPFL has been taking part in iGEM since 2008.

This year, the EPFL team delved into the issue of building insulation. Buildings’ heating and cooling systems account for 60% of the energy used by households in Europe and 10% of global carbon emissions. Effective insulation can help reduce these figures, but in Switzerland, almost all waste insulation is either incinerated or dumped into a landfill. Pablo Castellón, an EPFL Bachelor’s student in architecture, came up with the idea of creating a fully renewable material with excellent insulative properties.

“It’s the first time there’s been an architecture student on the iGEM team,” says Alice Klein, an EPFL Master’s student in life sciences engineering. “He wanted to explore potential applications for synthetic biology in his field. That really inspired two people on the team in particular; they looked at how biology can be used to make construction more sustainable, since that industry has a big impact on our society and the environment.”

The team scouting on a construction site. © 2022 EPFL

Nine intense months

The cross-disciplinary team spent nine intense months working on the project, which is part of EPFL’s MAKE program, covering all steps from brainstorming an initial idea to modeling the design, developing the product in a lab and creating a wiki page to describe their technology. The students’ new insulation material – named HESTIA, after the Greek goddess of the home – is a cellulose aerogel enhanced with two recombinant protein layers. “Cellulose aerogels are innovative substances, but they haven’t been used much in building insulation because they’re highly water sensitive,” says Charlotte Daumal, an EPFL Bachelor’s student in life sciences engineering. “To get around that obstacle, we took a silk protein secreted by green lacewings (Mallada signata) and found a way to reproduce and purify it in the lab in order to create a hydrophobic film.” A second layer, consisting of modulable proteins, gives the material additional properties, such as resistance to fire, insects and fungi.

The proof of concept that the team developed shows their idea is feasible from start to finish. The students fabricated the three layers of insulation in a lab, but they didn’t have time to create a final product. That wasn’t a problem for the iGEM competition, however, since what the selection panel mainly looks at are the proof of concept, the wiki page describing the technology and the student presentations given at the Grand Jamboree, which was held this year in Paris on 26–28 October. The EPFL team won a gold medal, which rewards excellence in multiple areas, and was named one of the top groups in the Best Biomanufacturing Project, Best Sustainable Project, Best Wiki and Best Presentation categories. EPFL also placed in the top ten in the Overgrad category, which is for teams with at least one member over the age of 23.

“The team didn’t have a hierarchical structure,” says Brian McCabe, the EPFL iGEM team supervisor and a neuroscience professor. “The students divided up the tasks among themselves and planned things out so as to meet the competition deadlines. It was great watching a team with no designated leader complete the different elements required without any conflict. That’s something you don’t see every day. It shows that groups can be very productive even in the absence of traditional organizational reporting lines.”

Elodie Marcandalli, an EPFL Master’s student in life sciences engineering, adds: “The Grand Jamboree was fantastic! It was the culmination of nine months of really hard work as a team. We got to meet people from all over the world and from a host of different backgrounds. In terms of the science, it was fascinating to see all the different projects. And it was a wonderful experience on a personal level too – even though it was pretty stressful, since our team wanted to be the best.”

Now that the competition is over, some team members are thinking about taking the HESTIA insulation further, such as by creating a startup, while others have found they really enjoy the research environment and are already thinking about pursuing a PhD.

Applications for the 2023 EPFL iGEM team will be open until 17 December 2022. “We take students from all disciplines, starting in the second year of their Bachelor’s,” says Marine Van Campenhoudt, the EPFL iGEM team coordinator and biology assistant and a PhD student under Prof. McCabe. “We’re looking for creative, highly motivated people who will drive the project forward. We don’t expect students to already know a lot about synthetic biology – that’s one of the learning objectives of the project.”