NGE's support for TU Braunschweig's iGEM 2023 victory


The iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) Competition is an annual event in synthetic biology. Teams participating in iGEM typically spend several months conducting research, designing their projects, and building their biological systems. These projects can range from addressing real-world problems in areas such as healthcare, environmental sustainability, and manufacturing, to exploring fundamental questions in biology and bioengineering. Teams also present their work at the annual iGEM Grand Jamboree, where they compete for awards in various categories. It provides students with valuable hands-on experience in laboratory techniques, project management, and science communication, while also fostering a culture of responsible and ethical biotechnology innovation.

The iGEM Grand Jamboree of 2023 was held in Paris from November 2nd to November 5th, with the winner announcements taking place on November 5th, 2023.

Discover how NIPPON Genetics EUROPE contributed to the success of a team from Technische Universität in Braunschweig at last year‘s iGEM Competition, leading them to victory in one of the categories. Explore the interview below with one of the participants to uncover our company‘s involvement and their journey.


Technische Universität Braunschweig iGEM Team 2023: gold medal winners for "Best Diagnostics Project"


1. Could you please provide a brief introduction about yourself and the research group you are part of?

My name is Ronja Friedhoff, and I am a Biology bachelor student at the Technische Universität Braunschweig. Last year, I participated in the iGEM competition for synthetic biology with my team. Our team comprised eight biology students, all pursuing our bachelor‘s degrees, except for one member who was already in her master‘s program. We were supervised by Professor Dr. Boas Pucker from the Plant Biotechnology and Bioinformatics Lab.


2. Can you provide an overview of the iGEM competition and explain its objectives?

The iGEM competition is the largest international event for synthetic biology, attracting teams from around the world to pursue their own projects in the field. One of the most thrilling aspects for us was the autonomy to develop our project idea and manage all aspects of research and fundraising independently.

During the competition, projects are evaluated by multiple judges across various categories, offering opportunities for teams to win prizes based on their performance. For instance, our team won in the „Best Diagnostics Project“ category, earning recognition for our work. Medals, including gold, silver, and bronze, are awarded alongside a range of other prizes, and were very happy to be also awarded with a gold medal. It‘s important to mention that in the competition, you don‘t win money; it‘s just about the honor of winning the prize at such a competition.


3. When you applied, you applied with a project in the field of synthetic biology. Could you give me some glimpses of what that project was about?

Our project focused on detecting and measuring lithium levels in patient samples. This was motivated by the fact that approximately 40 million people worldwide suffer from bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition characterized by severe mood swings, ranging from extreme depression to intense mania. These mood swings can be challenging for patients to manage, as they may experience prolonged periods of depression followed by sudden bursts of manic behavior. Lithium-containing medication is commonly used to treat bipolar disorder by stabilizing mood swings. However, the mechanism of how lithium works is not fully understood; it is simply known to be an effective treatment. The challenge with lithium therapy is that it requires precise monitoring due to its narrow therapeutic range. Concentrations below 0.6 millimolar are ineffective, while levels above 1.2 millimolar can be toxic, leading to organ failure or even death.

Traditionally, lithium levels are monitored by drawing blood samples at a doctor‘s office and sending them to a laboratory for analysis, which can take hours or days. This process is inconvenient for patients and may delay necessary adjustments to medication dosages. To address this issue, we developed an at-home point-care system for lithium quantification.

Our approach involved extensive literature research, leading us to discover lithium-sensing riboswitches. Translational riboswitch is defined as mRNA elements that bind metabolites or metal ions as ligands and regulate mRNA translation by forming alternative structures in response to this ligand binding. A particular characteristic of riboswitches is their exceptional selectivity for a specific ligand, such as lithium. The functionality of the riboswitch we used operates as follows: first, the mRNA folds into a three-dimensional structure. Lithium is capable of binding to this mRNA structure. The riboswitch obstructs the ribosome binding site, halting the translation of genes downstream of this riboswitch. However, when lithium binds to the structure, a structural alteration occurs, making the ribosome binding site accessible. This structural alteration enables the translation of genes downstream of the riboswitch.

We decided to use the translational lithium-sensitive riboswitch published by White et al., 2022 and designed a genetic construct in which the expression of a nano luciferase gene is controlled by this riboswitch. By measuring the luminescence output from this construct in the presence of different lithium concentrations, we could quantify the amount of lithium with a plate reader. The vision for this project was to create a test system where luminescence could be measured with a smartphone application. Unfortunately, we didn’t go that far due to time constraints, but we were able to prove the concept and validate the functionality of this riboswitch for such an application.


4. What motivated you and your team to register for the 2023 iGEM Competition?

The main motivation behind our participation was to gain more hands-on experience in the lab. iGEM provided us with the opportunity to engage in a lot of self-organized laboratory work, which is often limited during regular university studies. Additionally, we were driven by the desire to enhance our teamwork skills, as we recognize the importance of collaborative work in our future careers. Connecting with professionals from the biotechnological industry was also a valuable aspect of our experience, offering insights beyond the academic setting and providing helpful perspectives for our future career paths.


5. You already shared the importance of participating in iGEM for your and your colleagues‘ personal development. Could you also tell us about your experience in last year‘s iGEM Competition? How did you handle the pressure of working under a deadline and striving to achieve the best possible results, knowing you had to present them to an audience?

It was a stressful experience. Initially, it took us a considerable amount of time to decide on a project because we had several ideas, but many had already been done in the 20-year history of iGEM. We only began the laboratory work in April, and the deadline was in early October. Besides laboratory work, we had to create a wiki, which is a website containing all the information about our project, including our lab experiments, science communication efforts, and educational initiatives for the community. As a significant aspect of iGEM involves contributing to the community, we conducted school visits and developed educational materials for students, among other initiatives. All of this required a significant time investment, adding to the stress.

We spent a considerable amount of time writing content for the wiki and coding it. Through this process, we learned how to manage stressful situations and deal with frustration when experiments didn‘t go as planned. We also learned that it‘s quite usual that experiments fail many, many times before you get them to work. Overall, it was a steep learning curve for us.


6. How did our company‘s support play a role in your team‘s success?

We performed numerous PCR reactions primarily for cloning purposes. Your company supplied us with essential materials such as PCR plates and sealing foils, which were instrumental in conducting high throughput PCRs to confirm our cloning results.

You also supplied us with essential plasticware and tips, which made it easier to keep our experiments going. We were pleasantly surprised and deeply appreciative of your company‘s generosity in supporting us, especially considering its potentially smaller size compared to other companies. We are sincerely grateful for your assistance.


7. You likely utilized plasticware from various providers before. Can you share if you found any distinctive features in our company‘s plasticware that contributed to the success of your participation at the iGEM?

What we noticed right away was the high quality of the products. This was especially important for plastic items because it‘s crucial to use high-quality plastic to avoid any interactions with the reagents. We didn‘t encounter any problems in that regard. The materials didn‘t feel cheap.

Additionally, the tips were great because they fit perfectly on all of our pipettes, even though we used pipettes from different manufacturers. We didn‘t have any issues with them not fitting properly.


8. Looking ahead, would you and your team consider using our products again for future projects or competitions based on your experience in the iGEM competition?

Yes, I definitely would. I‘ve already checked out the website, and I also noticed that the products are reasonably priced. It‘s a great selection of products available at fair prices.


9. What impact do you believe our company‘s support has had on the goals of the iGEM competition and synthetic biology field?

I can envision that in the future, the impact could significantly increase because when your company supports young people like us who are either working in this field or just starting, we remember that. We remember all the kind people who have assisted us along the way. So I believe that all the high-quality products you offer will continue to have a positive impact on synthetic biology. This field involves a lot of cloning and molecular biology work, and I think your products are the right products for these tasks.

Thank you!


How about you? Did you get triggered about our products?

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