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Student team iGEM Leiden wins gold in Boston

The adventure of iGEM Leiden has come to an end. The result: prizes for Best Therapeutic Project and Best Model, a gold medal, a successful crowdfunding campaign and of course their open-source research findings, which are available for the scientific community.

Unreal

On Sunday 28 October, the international synthetic biology competition iGEM came to a climax during the prize ceremony in Boston, which was ‘very American and impressive’, according to the Leiden students. At the start of the project, their goal was winning a gold medal: ‘And that was quite a challenging goal’, says Laurens ter Haar (Biomedical Sciences). ‘And to win prizes for the Best Model and Best Therapeutic Project too, just feels unreal.’ Also Carli Koster (Life Science & Technology) was in disbelief: ‘The moment we saw our team name at the nominations was already unreal. But to actually win two of those prizes was really special.’

The prizes for Best Therapeutic Project and Best Model

The crowd funds

In order to enable their research towards stress-inducing compounds for bacteria (see box) and their trip to Boston, de students held a crowdfunding campaign. Eventually, with €8,309 they collected 93% of their target amount. The support came from all corners, says Marjolein Crooijmans (Biotechnology and Science Based Business). ‘We mainly expected donations from friends and family, but from the start we received nice messages from companies and other interested people. We also received a lot of support from Leiden alumni. We are extremely grateful to all donors.’

The Leiden iGEM team

Educational adventure

Especially the independence of the project made it an educational experience for the Leiden students. ‘It greatly varies from a practical with approved protocols and assistants who check everything. We really had to find out everything ourselves’, Koster says. Ter Haar adds that he has learnt a lot about tying together the individual parts into a coherent project. ‘That was quite a challenge, because all the individual parts changed a lot themselves, due to new knowledge and new results from the lab.’ The students stop working on this project and will continue their education, but supervisor Dennis Claessen might continue the project in the future. In addition, the cell lines which detect bacterial stress are open source and therefore available for further research.   

Advice for the next generation

The current team has several tips for the next iGEM Leiden generation: ‘Pick a subject which is topical, important, and easy to understand’, says Crooijmans. ‘This makes people more interested in the project, which really helps for the crowdfunding.’ Furthermore, Koster pleads for much-needed realism: ‘Choose a project that’s not only topical, but also feasible to execute in the timeframe of iGEM. During the presentations, we saw many empty-handed teams, because they were too ambitious at the start.’ Besides, the next iGEM team can get plenty more of advice, since many team members want to become Advisors – former participants who join the next team as mentors.

Bacteria also have stress

New antibiotics are needed to combat resistant bacteria, but such new antibiotics are proving very difficult if not impossible to find.  The student team is therefore working on bacteria that change colour under stress, caused by a particular anti-bacterial substance. The stress and discolouration indicate that the bacteria are unable to resist the substance in question. Team member Carli Koster explains: ‘Stressful substances are not individually lethal for bacteria, but in the right combination they can be a lethal cocktail. Our ‘stress bacteria’ make it possible to discover substances that can strengthen existing medicines or make completely new ones.

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