EPFL team wins medal in the 2021 iGEM synthetic biology competition
An EPFL team has been awarded a gold medal and the best documentation prize in this year’s iGEM international synthetic biology competition. In just six months, the team members designed a bioreactor capable of neutralizing copper from the fungicides used in organic vine growing.
iGEM is an international competition that brings hundreds of student teams together each year to try and solve real-world problems through the application of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is a cutting-edge, interdisciplinary science that involves modifying existing biological systems for novel and specialized applications. It is commonly used in biosensor and pharmaceutical design, and also in genetically modified organisms.
With their project named “CuRe”, EPFL’s team got down to tackling the pollution of agricultural soil by copper, which is a problem for organic vineyards in particular: “In organic farming, the only way to protect vines from mildew – a destructive fungal disease – is to cover the plants in a copper- and sulfate-based treatment,” explains Danaé Terrien-Ferey, an undergraduate student in life sciences and a member of the project’s “organic” team. “The problem is that copper is a highly pollutant heavy metal, and it soaks into the soil when it rains.” The team’s solution? A modified strain of yeast, engineered for its ability to expose CUP1 proteins, which have a high affinity for copper. When a copper atom comes into contact with this type of protein, it gets “captured”. “The aim is to catch the water that runs off the leaves when it rains, and then process it in a bioreactor containing the modified yeast in order to neutralize the copper,” explains Eric Richter, who worked on the hardware aspect of the project. “To make our product truly viable, we also sought to make it as simple and inexpensive as possible.”
Addressing a local problem was also an important priority for the team, who made a field trip to the vineyards of Lavaux: “We met with a number of wine-growers to talk about copper pollution, as it was important for us to get their thoughts and ideas on the problem, as well as their feedback on our project”, says Anissa Hammi, who managed the protein expression control. Her colleague and team leader, Lou Voinov, agrees: “That stage was crucial! We had to respond to a real-world problem. And the general public are still unaware of the extent of copper pollution, even though it has terrible consequences: Nowadays, this copper-polluted soil means you can no longer plant new vines unless you treat the entire vineyard.”
Alongside the technical development of the project, the team devoted considerable time to public scientific education regarding CuRe and the issue at hand: Among other activities, they presented the project in high schools, recorded four podcast episodes on the subject of GMOs, and even authored a children's book, soon to be distributed to all the primary schools in Lausanne. At the iGEM virtual Jamboree in November, the EPFL delegation achieved a gold medal, which is the recognition awarded to projects that successfully incorporate a social and human dimension into their solution, work collaboratively with other iGEM teams, and develop a convincing proof of concept. CuRe members also brought home the prize for the best “Wiki”, thanks to their diligence in creating the project documentation for the team’s website. And, for the hat-trick, CuRe were also ranked among the top 5 best environmental projects.
The EPFL awards credits for participation in iGEM, and students in any department can take part. Candidates are selected with a view to creating an interdisciplinary team. “We especially look for applicants who show creativity and motivation to learn,” explains Brian McCabe, professor of neuroscience at the EPFL and EPFL team supervisor at iGEM. “You could view the project as a small biotech startup: you have to come up with an idea and implement it, but also promote it – all within a specified time frame.” “It's an opportunity for the students to create a project that meets a real-world need and helps them acquire skills in multiple areas through bringing the project to fruition, and also through scientific experimentation. This is something they won’t necessarily gain from their classwork or more traditional academic projects,” adds Marine Van Campenhoudt, a PhD student under Professor McCabe, and the team’s coordinator and biology assistant.
iGEM Team: Anissa Hammi, Danaé Terrien-Ferrey, Davide Torre, David Toledano, Emma Vernizeau, Eric Richter, Julian Bär, Lou Voinov, Romain Birling, Simon Liétar
Supervised by: Marine van Campenhoudt, Blandine Vergier, Amir Shahein, Prof. Brian McCabe