Michigan Synthetic Biology Team Celebrates iGEM Grand Jamboree Gold, Focuses on Future Challenges

The iGEM Competition is an annual, worldwide synthetic biology event aimed at undergraduate university students, as well as high school and graduate students.

The Michigan Synthetic Biology Team (MSBT) received a Gold Medal at the iGEM 2023 competition held in Paris last November. 

The iGEM Competition is an annual, worldwide synthetic biology event aimed at undergraduate university students, as well as high school and graduate students. The iGEM Competition offers students the opportunity to push the boundaries of synthetic biology by tackling everyday issues facing the world. Multidisciplinary teams work together to design, build, test, and measure a system of their own design using interchangeable biological parts and standard molecular biology techniques to create sophisticated projects that strive to create a positive contribution to their communities and the world.

In addition to the Gold Medal, MSBT was nominated for best undergraduate diagnostics project. 

MSBT students reflect strong engineering backgrounds, with about half of the team’s members majoring in a CoE discipline or specifically in biomedical engineering. 

For the 2023 season, the team had 27 members, with 10 majoring in BME. The 2023 project season ran from January through October, culminating with the November Grand Jamboree. More than 400 multidisciplinary teams from around the world competed in the event. 

“Our project last year was inspired by a student of ours who took a pharmacology class at Michigan, taught by Dr. Michael Holinstat,” said Sophia Tesic, the MSBT co-president. “This team member talked with Dr. Holinstat about preliminary research that had come from his lab suggesting some medications used for antiplatelet therapy may be less effective in certain patients who carry a specific genetic variant.”

This specific genetic variant is a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) present at different rates across demographic populations and is highly prevalent in African-American patients. “If medications that are less effective with this genetic variant are prescribed to patients with the variant, they could benefit from a different prescription that is not affected,” Tesic said. “We were interested in seeing if there was some quick diagnostic test that could be performed in clinic to identify which patients had this genetic variant, and which didn’t, to help inform prescription decisions.”

The team used an amplification method known as LAMP, or loop-mediated isothermal amplification, to amplify the gene of interest, F2RL3. Using this method instead of PCR eliminated the need for a thermocycler and other expensive equipment. To detect the SNP, the team members employed recently-developed (2022) differential fluorescence probe technology. With one F2RL3 variant present, the sample should show fluorescence. With the other, the sample should not show fluorescence. This method would enable testing for less than $3 per sample, with results ready in about an hour. 

The LAMP method reduces the need for certain lab equipment, making this project more feasible for an in-clinic test. “This combination of techniques really allowed us to target a cheap test that would take just a few dollars per patient sample, and that would be available quickly, taking less than an hour to run,” Tesic added.

If physicians can easily determine their patient’s genetic status, they can make an informed choice of antiplatelet therapy. If the patient does not have the potentially resistant variant, they can be straight-forwardly prescribed effective standard-of-care medications like aspirin or clopidogrel. However, future research may show that a physician should consider a different antithrombotic medication, like ticagrelor or heparin, for patients with the resistant F2RL3 variant. The current method of detecting SNP presence is genome sequencing, which is expensive and slow, taking days or weeks to obtain results. It is also impractical to perform in a point-of-care setting. MSBT proposed an inexpensive, rapid-testing method to determine a patient’s genetic status, with a goal of improving equity in medical decision-making.

In addition to the team’s award-winning presentation in Paris, the students work hard locally to bring their love of science to the community. 

“We’re a very education-focused team, so we like to visit a lot of local schools to present our project and also tailor our talks to the students’ current curriculum,” said Kimberly Lillios, the MSBT finance director. “We were also the leaders of the Biomedical Engineering portion of the Discovery Engineering Camps this past summer, and I was one of the counselors. That was super fun and a great chance for the kids to get hands-on experience with cool projects. It was fun to see them learning the techniques, but you can also see their reactions as they’re trying to synthesize what the scientific results mean. We also held a health equity symposium that focused on collaborating with other iGEM teams that had similar values in their projects. This really brought people together, not only to showcase projects to other groups, but also to facilitate collaborations for the rest of the year.”

Moving forward, the MSBT is looking to the 2024 season, highlighting the following goals:

  • Successful recruiting season with 33 members on the team
  • Competing in the bioremediation village category
  • Tackling the issue of 1,4-dioxane contamination in the Huron River watershed and Ann Arbor well-water systems

MSBT plans to engineer a more cost-effective solution to break down the contaminant using bacterial machinery. The group is proposing a small-scale bioreactor that could be feasibly used by Ann Arbor residents with well water. 

“Specifically for this season, we will likely be competing in the bioremediation village,” said Tesic. “iGEM projects typically don’t carry over from season to season, so we’re doing something completely new this coming season. The project that we’re tackling is the issue of 1,4-Dioxane contamination in the Huron River watershed and in Ann Arbor well-water systems. 1,4-Dioxane is a known likely human carcinogen and is present in somewhat high concentrations that are greater than the Michigan residential drinking water cleanup criteria in local water sources. We want to engineer a more cost-effective solution to break down this contaminant using bacterial machinery. That’s where synthetic biology comes in. Our end goal is to propose a small-scale bioreactor that could be feasibly used by Ann Arbor residents who are on well water. With that, we also want to continue our community impact and expand our efforts to connect with people in the community who are focused on these issues. We are in collaboration with some local change groups who are focused on clean water policy and also local PIs at U-M who are focused on bioreactor research.”

“Our reach goal is to win best in a specific village (e.g. Diagnostics, Bioremediation, Sustainability, etc) competition category at the next Grand Jamboree,” she added. “The top diagnostics, top bioremediation–those are projects that we can definitely see are within our grasp as something that’s achievable for Michigan to win, so the 2023 performance was the first step in that direction. We identified things that we can work on in this new season and in future seasons to really make sure that our science is as strong as it can be so that we can compete at the top level.”