University of Tartu students participate in the world’s biggest synthetic biology competition with an ambitious and innovative idea

For the first time, Estonia takes part in the world’s biggest synthetic biology competition for students iGEM this year. The University of Tartu Institute of Technology has formed a team of students-researchers, who work together over the spring/summer to create cells that are able to cooperate and produce ethylene.

Teams of students-researchers work together over spring/summer to solve an important local or global problem by means of synthetic biology. If everything works out, the student contest may result in a revolutionary and life-changing application.

Synthetic biology is a very promising future technology, which enables to create living cells that are directed to fulfil a specific task. “It is believed, for example, that thanks to synthetic biology, cancer will have been defeated in the world in about 10–15 years, because cells designed to attack cancer cells will enable rapid specific treatment,” one of the leaders of the work group Petri-Jaan Lahtvee gave an example how synthetic biology can offer possibilities for solving several global problems facing the mankind. “With the help of synthetic biology it is also possible to decrease dependence on oil products like fuels, plastic and synthetic textiles, by using microorganisms (like yeast) to convert sugars in the biomass into more valuable chemicals,” Lahtvee added.

“The iGEM competition is an excellent opportunity for synthetic biology students to get practical experience, as they will participate from the very beginning in the planning and conducting of the project and later introducing its results,” said Lahtvee. “Our team’s idea is to create two types of cells, which are genetically reprogrammed to produce chemicals in mutual cooperation. The first cell type produces ethanol from glucose, but only in case the other cell type grows in the same container and produces the necessary chemical for the first cell population to survive. Other cells use the ethanol produced by the first cells, to produce ethylene. Our aim in the demo project of the described system is to produce ethylene – a chemical, from which it is possible to make plastic, tyres, textile, and which can be found in cosmetic products, paints and drugs. However, if the project succeeds, the system could be used to produce many other chemicals,” the senior researcher introduced the idea of our work group for the contest.

iGEM – the International Genetically Engineered Machine – is an annual competition and global synthetic biology event for university and secondary school students and coordinated by Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. The aim of the contest is to grow a new generation who is proficient in this field and introduce the possibilities of the development of synthetic biology to the general public.

A number of successful startups have been born from iGEM teams, the best known of them is Ginkgo Bioworks, who deals with the design of microorganisms for the production of biochemicals. Last year Gingko Bioworks raised more than 100 million dollar worth of investments.

Additional information:
Mart Loog, UT Professor of Molecular Systems Biology, 517 5698,
Petri-Jaan Lahtvee, UT Senior Research Fellow in Synthetic Biology,

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