International Genetically Engineered Machines or iGEM is an independent, non-profit organization that works towards the advancements of synthetic biology, education and competition, and the development of an open community and collaboration. The iGEM competition is an annual event where over 300 multidisciplinary student teams and more than 6000 people, from all over the world, present their work and compete for the coveted winning title.
This year, at the annual “giant jamboree” held at Boston, the team of iGEM IIT Delhi bagged the bronze medal for their work titled, “Back and Forth with Recombinases” The team worked under the supervision of Professor Zia Shaikh Ahammad, the mentorship of Kshitij Rai (now a graduate in Biochemical and Biotechnology Engineering) and was represented by Priyanka Singh (Sophomore, BB1) and Vasu Jain (Sophomore, CS1) at the event.
To learn more about their work, we got into a conversation with the team members and here is what we found out.
Members of Team iGEM
With the advent of synthetic biology in the recent past, a number of synthetic biological circuits have been developed. One of the major aims of synthetic biology is to emulate electrical circuits in a genetic medium. Analogous to a charge in an electric circuit, biological circuits have proteins. The rate of production of protein represents a signal similar to an electric current. But, as the complexity of the circuits increases, the number of components in each circuit grow exponentially. The components, if interfere with the working of each other, the systems succumb to noise and growth-related factors.
To combat this issue, the project was focussed on developing a toolbox, elements of which could be further incorporated in complex biological networks such that, the circuits could behave independently with no cross-talk.
About the Project:
Recombinases are special proteins that have the ability to carry out site-specific recombination-inversion, excision and integration of DNA parts. The recombinase sites are 50-200 nucleotides long to which recombinase binds and the particular reaction takes place depending on the orientation of the said sites. Recombinase-based biological circuits provide a solution to the problems of modularity(i.e.ability to recognize discrete units of a system and carry out selective tasks) and orthogonality (i.e.the ability to act independently without interfering in the working of the other components).
A feed-forward loop is basically a regulatory mechanism found in large amounts in naturally occurring circuits which involves the regulation of a gene by two other genes in a direct or an indirect manner. Incoherent feed-forward loops enabled by recombinases were developed to generate responses robust to extrinsic noise. The main idea of the project was the fundamental way in which recombinases act by removing or flipping the gene of interest and hence, get a digital response. The gene can be turned on or off by flipping it and thus preventing or activating transcription.
The biological networks were modelled on MATLAB and later verified with experiments conducted on E. Coli bacteria.
E coli mutated with m cherry red fluorescent protein
Lab procedures are often time-consuming. If a procedure requires 16 hours to be completed, it is important that it is completed in the required time otherwise the cycle has to be repeated. The lab the iGEM team worked in was used for undergraduate courses in the morning. This often led to contamination and hence a longer time to complete a particular task. Apart from this, a lack of funds, insufficient equipment and a dearth of senior “iGEMmers” to guide the team added to the difficulty.
There was a shortage of funds throughout the time period of the project. Since IIT doesn’t fund the iGEM club, the funding was mainly through iBEC 2016 winning amount and crowdfunding sources.
Apart from doing the project, iGEM requires the teams to showcase the impact of the project on the society. To promote the cause of synthetic biology and its prospects, the team designed hands-on experiments and conducted workshops in 6 prominent schools of Delhi interacting with over 300 students. Apart from talking about the project, two experiments related to the ideas of the project were also demonstrated.
Vasu remarked, “India currently has zero high school iGEM teams. Apart from the western countries, China also has a high school iGEM team, which secured the first position this time. Therefore, we made the students aware about iGEM and encouraged them to create their own teams. Few of the schools even showed genuine interest in the same.”
Officially, iGEM IIT Delhi is on a one-year hiatus. However, they are planning to pursue iBEC 2019, Indian Biological Engineering Competition, an annual competition organized by the Ministry of Biotechnology of India to support the best Indian students team to participate in the iGEM competition. The team plans to do a project this year if they are able to secure funds through iBEC.
Vasu mentioned, “It is less likely that we do a project this time. Next year, a few of our seniors would return and all of us would be more experienced to be able to contribute more meaningfully to a project.”
“iGEM was hard, but iGEM was fun!” remarked Priyanka, on being asked about the overall experience. The teammates resonated with similar sentiments and Soumya added, “They were the most memorable six months of my life”.
We would like to congratulate Team iGEM, IIT Delhi for their outstanding achievement and wish them all the best for their future endeavours.
Members of Team iGEM
Special thanks to Priyanka Singh, Shubham Jain, Soumya Gupta and Vasu Jain for their valuable inputs.
Here is the link to their website where you can find more information about their project:
Article by: Ritika Malik, Saksham Saxena