Microorganisms that can munch on plastic waste. Bacteria that detect land mines. Microbes that can produce spider silk. Only twenty years ago, any of these applications would have been science fiction. But now, these and more wonders are within our reach, and we have synthetic biology to thank. The ability to engineer microorganisms is already shaking up how we design medicines, how we eat and even how we plan the buildings of the future.
This young discipline was born along with the new millennium and has experienced exponential growth in these past two decades. And one of the reasons for this success is the International Genetically Engineered Machine, or iGEM. This independent and non-profit organization has put on, a biology engineering competition for students worldwide since 2004, with over 5000 participants and 350 teams in its last edition. iGEM has fostered an open and cooperative community that has connected thousands of young synthetic biologists and served them as a valuable experience to start their careers. Even some of our partners in Rafts4Biotech joined this competition at some point!
But iGEM isn’t only a useful testing ground for proofs-of-concept and prototypes, but also an interesting opportunity to meet new people and lay the foundations for future projects. After the contest is over, some of the wonderful projects and ideas jump into the market and have become successful start-ups. Here are some examples!
Bring the lab with you
One of the most common analyses that synthetic biologists must do when working on a synbio project is to check if an organism has a certain gene within its genetic material. To do this, they have to apply a treatment to their sample to extract the DNA, amplify the gene of interest in the sample to be able to detect it and then check if it is present. Looks like a quick cooking recipe, but in the laboratory, this process implies several devices that are expensive and, above all, bulky.
Back in 2013, the iGEM team from the University College London presented a simple but bold idea: fuse all these devices in a “portable lab”. The Darwin toolbox, as it was named, is a biotechnology laboratory in a 13”x11” box (33×28 cm) that contained a centrifuge, a PCR machine, and a gel electrophoresis unit, including a transilluminator. The successful reception of this idea led to further work and evolved into the start-up Bento Lab in 2014.
This all-in-one device can be used for routine lab work, but it is affordable enough to be used as an educational tool and to bring synthetic biology to anyone interested in this discipline. Moreover, it can be used for those researchers who take their samples from very remote locations and can’t afford to wait until they are back in the lab to analyse them. Even if you are going to the Amazon rainforest, you can bring along your lab in your backpack!
Smells like yellow bananas (and bacteria)
Vanilla flavour for baking cakes, saffron to add to many cooking recipes, floral scents that are key ingredients in perfumes… There are many natural fragrances that are essential for products of daily use. Commonly, humans have managed to extract these valuable compounds from their natural sources, but these processes tend to be costly and, in some cases, they involve chemical procedures that generate polluting waste.
A promising solution for this challenge is using synbio tools to engineer microorganisms into biological factories for molecules like flavours and scents. Back in 2006, when using synbio for this purpose wasn’t as common as it is today, the iGEM team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) presented a synbio project to engineer Escherichia coli bacteria to produce wintergreen and banana scent, both used as additives to boost the flavour of food.
This project inspired the creation of one of the biggest biotechnology companies nowadays: Ginkgo Bioworks. Ginkgo’s 5 co-founders were part of the iGEM 2006 team, including iGEM co-founder Tom Knight. This powerhouse in synthetic biology is specialised in engineering and tailoring living organisms to produce cultured flavours, fragrances, and nutritional ingredients.
Gluten? No problem!
One of the most common autoimmune conditions worldwide is celiac disease. When people with this condition eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), the body detects this as an external threat and unleashes an immune response that attacks the small intestine. This can cause health problems, as the nutrient absorption in the intestine can be hindered. While nowadays gluten-free products are pretty common, they tend to be expensive, when available.
Another alternative could be removing the celiac condition for those enduring it and it turns out that the first recombinant enzyme therapeutic for celiac disease was born in iGEM! In 2011, the team from the University of Washington (US) presented Kumamax, a protease that they engineered to increase its gluten-degrading activity, so it could break down this protein when taken as a pill.
This ambitious project developed afterwards in a postdoc and finally, it turned into a start-up named PvP Biologics, receiving $35M in funding from Takeda in 2017. In February 2019 Takada acquired PVP Biologics for $330M.
These are only three examples out of the hundreds of start-ups that have been born in iGEM. This year iGEM is taking place too, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, although it will be online to ensure that attendants, participants and judges are safe. If you are thinking of joining the contest or we have piqued your curiosity, you can find more details here!