For this second participation in the iGEM contest, the UCL team came back from Boston among the teams who received a bronze medal!

Published on November 30, 2017

iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machine), is a competition in the field of synthetic biology. Students from all over the world must find solutions to current societal issues using synthetic biology.

But what is exactly synthetic biology? This scientific field brings both biology and engineering together with a view to creating new methods and systems in diverse sectors, from agriculture to pharmaceutical industries.

The 2017 UCLouvain iGEM team has worked on a biological UV sensor system. They’ve named it BactaSun: a bio-badge that changes its color when exposed to harmful UV rays. This device could be very useful in a world of increasing skin cancers such as ours. Actually, the WHO (World Health Organization) states that skin cancers have been increasing in the past decades.

This badge would work as a capsule holding Escherichia coli bacteria, changing color as the UV dose increases. The UCLouvain team investigated two approaches using photocaged tyrosine (o-nitrobenzyl tyrosine), an amino acid derivative that, upon UV exposure, decompose into the free tyrosine which is then used by the bacteria to generate the color signal.

  1. The first approach takes advantage of a tyrosine auxotroph E. coli strain; these bacteria will produce a red fluorescent protein only when tyrosine is available.
  2. In the second approach, the caged amino acid is incorporated into a specific quorum sensing peptide called ComS; when UV-irradiated, the free ComS peptide can interact with a transcription factor called ComR, triggering the expression of the reporter gene.

The team also designed a safe and reliable containment device for the bacteria, endowed with a mechanism for destroying the engineered microorganisms before the biobadge is discarded. The badge prototype was printed using a 3D printer. A security ring containing bleach is integrated to this badge, a simple turn allowing to kill the cells after use.

With great help from their principal instructors, Patrice Soumillion, Charles Hachez and Bernard Hallet, Professors at the UCL Life Sciences Institute, they achieved their project successfully! In November, the team flew to Boston to present their project, and was among those who won a bronze medal. The judges particularly appreciated the biological part of the project, and also the way one and the same compound (the photocaged amino acid) was used in two different approaches. Furthermore, they were impressed by the ingenuity of the badge, designed in keeping with a biosafe frame of mind.

“The team's creative solution for biosafety was really, really innovative […].”

“You present a very clever device that exploits some interesting characteristics, such as autotrophy and photo lability.”

“[…] the presentation was engaging, the poster was attractive, and I think the idea of a safety ring is a nice feature to the design of your application.”

“Project idea was impressive. Product developed has substantial proof.”

But the adventure is not over! The 2017 iGEM team will take part in the next “Printemps des Sciences” (From March 19th to March 25th). Don’t hesitate to meet them there! The 2018 UCLouvain iGEM team is already working on the next iGEM contest! We wish them every success!

The 2017 UCLouvain iGEM Team

Marine Lefèvre (bioengineering student), Roxane Schleusner (biochemistry student), Caroline de Pret (finance student), Guillaume Cerckel (biochemistry student), Olivier Suys (biochemistry student), Thomas Reginster (bioengineering student), Benjamin Ledoux (bioengineer student), Alexandre Jolly (bioengineer student), Pierre Van Meerbeeck (bioengineer student) and Cyril Maréchal (engineering student).

 Instructors
Professor Patrice Soumillion, Professor Charles Hachez and Professor Bernard Hallet.

Lab supervisors
Florence Vande Capelle (PhD student) and Sebastian Worms (PhD student).