EPFL's iGEM team wins Gold in 2018 synthetic biology competition
The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition takes place every year, with ~350 teams of students from high schools and universities across the world competing with synthetic biology projects they have developed and worked on in their home institutions. The 2016 iGEM competition is featured in the recent documentary Genesis 2.0.
This year, the EPFL iGEM team consisted of twelve students, predominantly studying within the Life Sciences (Master and Bachelor). In addition, there were two from the School of Basic Sciences (Physics and Chemistry), and one from the College of Management of Technology. The team’s project, named CAPOEIRA, is a personalized vaccination system that aims to turn a cancer patient’s immune system against their tumor. This approach, called immunotherapy, is currently one of the main research streams of EPFL’s School of Life Sciences.
Video by Barry Ciocco
“It is just incredible to see thousands and thousands of students from around the globe that have the same passion about synthetic biology and about their projects as your team,” says Daniel Nakhaee-Zadeh Gutierrez, who handled the team’s logistics. “We faced three main challenges during the project,” adds team president Reza Hosseini. “First, how to build an amazing project from scratch and how to make different elements fit in a big picture. Second, knowing when to continue trying to solve a problem and when to stop. And finally, how to communicate efficiently, especially at the end of the project when everything is coming together.”
“The support of EPFL and our supervisors have been extremely invaluable,” says Gutierrez. “I believe that bringing students from other disciplines will greatly improve the outcome of the team's work. From wet-lab to bioinformatics and even managerial skills, iGEM is a great way to learn a lot about synthetic biology and bioengineering in general in a very condensed amount of time.”
“iGEM quickly demands a lot of lab work with many concepts that are new to students,” says team secretary Samuel Santhosh Gomez. “But the most valuable skill I learned was to work in a team setting on a project that resembles a research project. I would definitely recommend iGEM to any student motivated to explore how synthetic biology can be used to solve today's problems.”
The annual competition is organized by the iGEM foundation, an independent non-profit “dedicated to education, competition, the advancement of synthetic biology, and the development of an open community and collaboration.” The work for the competition occupies the teams for the better part of a year, and culminates at the iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston, where projects are presented and judged by bioengineering experts. This year's Giant Jamboree took place between 24-28 October.
EPFL has participated in the iGEM competition since 2008. The School of Life Sciences funded the 2018 iGEM team with additional generous financial support from the Swiss Industry Science Fund and Nikon Instruments. The students worked on their project at EPFL’s Discovery Learning Laboratories.
This year, the team was supervised by Professor Sebastian Maerkl from the School of Engineering and the Interfaculty Institute of Bioengineering, with three PhD students acting as additional instructors.