A group of students from Brno are tackling the challenge of removing the cyanobacteria that pollute ponds and small water reservoirs and the toxins they produce. They call themselves Generation Mendel and unite students at Masaryk University and BUT. They recently successfully presented their synthetic biology system at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.
The team won a gold medal and their project was ranked in the top five in the Environment category. This year, the competition attracted 249 teams comprising 4,800 individual competitors from 36 countries and their projects were evaluated by 304 international judges. The Brno team competed in the Environment category against 56 other projects.
“A year ago, a colleague and I were at a conference on synthetic biology, where one of the iGEM Ambassadors was giving a lecture. We got excited when we saw that even young scientists can achieve fascinating research results,” says Barbora Hrnčířová about the initial idea to take part in the challenging competition.
They needed more people to create a team, so with Stanislav Jurečka, they produced and put up flyers about the competition in the MU campus in Bohunice, which is the location of their Faculty of Science laboratory, and at other MU faculties and other Brno universities.
Eventually, they put together a team of enthusiastic biologists, engineers, economists and IT experts and began identifying potential research topics. “We wanted to work on something that’s interesting locally in Brno but also globally relevant. Then we remembered the constant struggle with cyanobacteria at the Brno dam and decided to do something about it. To be effective, the water treatment must remove not only the cyanobacteria cells but also the toxins that they produce, which is why we based our system on the cells of the soil bacteria Bacillus subtillis,” says Barbora.
These bacteria must first be modified using methods developed for synthetic biology. This is a discipline that compiles various genetic building blocks into functional units with new or improved features compared to those that can be found in nature. As Barbora explains: “We modified our cells so that their surface would be covered in a protein matrix coated with enzymes that can destroy both the cyanobacteria cells and their toxins.”
On the next level of the system, the students will attach the cells to cellulose microbeads, which will then be enclosed in a water treatment device. This is to make sure that the modified cells cannot enter the natural environment.
The students originally planned to devise a system for use in water reservoirs that are now inaccessible to swimmers due to high cyanobacteria levels. However, they eventually decided to focus on a device that could be used in smaller pools and ponds where the cyanobacteria and their toxins present a threat to plants and animals and disrupt the local biodiversity.
Research and volunteering
Although everyday academic life, studies and research have been disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak since the spring, the students decided to carry on, since the competition was online. In the spring, they focused mostly on administrative tasks, such as establishing their association and raising funds. The lab work followed in the summer.
“Early on, we focused on reviewing the literature and designing our processes – and also on our bachelor’s theses and exams,” says Barbora. In the summer, they were permitted to use the lab at the Department of Experimental Biology at the MU Faculty of Science. They also received financial support from the MU Faculty of Science, CEITEC MU and several private companies.
The students also worked as volunteers during the spring lockdown: they delivered groceries and produced scientific colouring books for children and a magazine that they distributed to retirement homes.
All the students enjoyed working on a research project and popularising science and they had high ambitions for the competition. They did not aim high in vain: their team achieved the highest award.
Working together is a must
While the competition carries a lot of prestige, it also teaches cooperation and facilitates learning. Team Generation Mendel had the opportunity to learn more about biology as well as information technologies and PR. The teams are also expected to work with each other: “It is one of the conditions of the competition. We were in touch with participants from Vienna, Uppsala, Helsinki and Darmstadt who work with the same bacterium or focus on water treatment so we could give each other advice.”
In no small part, the work of the team was made possible by the financing and support they received from the MU Faculty of Science, CEITEC MU, MU Rector's Office, BUT Rector's Office, BUT Faculty of Business and Management, MU Faculty of Economics and Administration, Loschmidt Laboratories and the JIC (South Moravian Innovation Centre). Moreover, some of the supplies needed for the project were donated by several companies: IDT, East Port Praha and Promega.
The students are hopeful that the project will result in a functional device. You can check out the team’s presentation at iGEM.