The Sparkling iGEM

A group of 24 students of the department of Biotechnology from IIT Kharagpur, West Bengal has prepared themselves for participating in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition to be held in Boston from October 27th to 31st, 2016.
The iGEM IIT KGP team

The iGEM IIT KGP team

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) is the biggest and most prestigious competition in the emerging field of genetic engineering and synthetic biology, and is being conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) since 2004. The iGEM competition encourages student researchers to conceive and implement a novel idea to solve real-world challenges by building genetically engineered biological systems. Students collaboratively identify a problem, formulate a solution, design the experiments and develop an implementable technology which could result in a patent, seed a potential start-up and generate a novel technology transfer to industry.This initiative was spearheaded last year by a group of enthusiastic students from the Department of Biotechnology, some of whom who have graduated now, and brought before the faculty whose wholehearted support cleared the path for them. Professor Agneyo Ganguly was assigned the responsibility of mentoring and overlooking the group. We were fortunate enough to have a chat with Prof. Ganguly and know more about this.
Professor Ganguly with Rhushikesh Phadke

Professor Ganguly with Rhushikesh Phadke

The first step for any interested group is to register on the main website of iGEM. There can be multiple registrations from the same college, a practice common in Chinese universities. There is no prerequisite or any criteria for registration apart from the fact that the concerned group should be able to financially support itself and garner adequate funds to cover the cost. The fee includes the travel, accommodation costs and also includes the cost of the starter kit which is provided to every registered team. The starter kit consists of an expanding library of manipulated and engineered genes from different organisms. These can be thought of as genetic cassettes, each with information pertaining to a particular set of organisms, manipulated and otherwise. These are the bio-bricks that serve as starting points or bridging points ready to be experimented with by students in any number of permutations. The entries every year are added to the list continuously. The kit is a physical collection of specimens like a stem cell bank.

This year, the team members have set their hands to represent their institute at the international stage with a specifically designed genetically engineered bacteria aimed at synthesizing recombinant spider silk protein (MaSp2) and producing it extracellularly. IIT KGP’s Department of Biotechnology has a legacy and a history in silk research, with some of the faculty like Professor S. C. Kundu having about 20-25 years of experience in the field. Due to its high tensile strength and elasticity, spider silk has potential applications as a biomaterial. Since it is biocompatible and biodegradable, it is also useful in the medical and drug industries. Recent research suggests that spider silk can also be used to grow cells as silk promotes more cell growth rather than controlling it. However, implementing these undertakings at industrial level requires high inputs of spider silk. Spiders being territorial and venomous make the silk extraction process rather difficult. To address this issue, genetically engineered bacteria were developed to produce spider silk. Bacteria replicate very quickly. If this quality could somehow be combined with an additional ability to produce silk artificially, the industrial expectations could be matched. Thus, they aim at developing a continuous set up for the production of spider silk using genetically engineered bacteria. Along with this, they have devised a detection system to validate their idea.
The Undergraduate Laboratory in the department is used by the students to work out the experiments in a self-sufficient manner. The departmental Central Research Facility, which is open to every kind of student is also used sometimes. Occasionally, if needed, our institute’s Central Research Facility is also accessible to the group.

The team running some tests

The team running some tests

Currently, the team has finished extracting all the genes required for silk production and is in the process of joining the genes with each other, trying to arrange them in tandem to increase the production. Their ultimate goal is to immobilize the bacteria on a surface and upscale the production. Before any industrial implementations, checking the efficacy of a laboratory process is of utmost importance. The same is being done here. The competition requires proof of the concept, only then will industrial implementation come into the picture. A final meeting called Giant Jamboree is held in Boston every year where the participants from all over the world present their ideas and progress, based on which they are to be judged and awarded medals. But that is not the end of the story. The motive of this meet is also to facilitate the exchange of industry connections and networking, so that all the teams have every resource available for them to collaborate with the corporate world, publish their work in respected journals or gain additional funds to continue with their projects.
The team is partially funded by the institute. The rest of the funds come from the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology. This year, 4 fourth year students, namely, Rhushikesh Phadke, Pruthvi Patel, Sanjay Prasad and Chetan Khandelwal are set to represent and showcase the team’s effort at the meet.
Taking a small diversion from the story, we want to highlight an important question. How would a student or a group of students approach a professor  for going forward with this kind of venture? What does a professor look for in students to give the green signal? Prof. Ganguly answers this question  from his perspective. He feels that, firstly, the students’ approach is very important. They should have a clear idea of what they want and what the  competition offers. In the case of iGEM, it is well distributed all over the world and adds to our international visibility as an institute. Secondly, the credibility of the organiser matters. MIT needs no explanation. But in the case of any other organiser, the mentioned factor should play an important role. It would be unwise if a student went abroad just for the sake of travelling to a foreign country. Finally, the students’ enthusiasm counts a lot. The competitions should serve as a platform to link the world with what you are studying and your interests. Generally, undergraduate students aren’t interested as much in research. iGEM is completely based on lab work and can serve as an attempt to change the above thought.
The participation in iGEM from our institute is not limited to the Bio-Tech Department only. The competition opens up the possibility of departmental collaborations. It is a total package. Aspects like website development and Wikipage management too, have an impact. An instance of departmental collaboration can be a partnership with the Chemical Engineering Department to design bio-reactors for this process.This will be the second time IIT Kharagpur will be participating in this competition in succession to their prior attempt focussed at detecting food spoilage using bacterial quorum sensing. The genetically engineered bacteria could sense the concentration of other food spoiling bacteria in eatables and manifest this through a colour pigment. A total of 6 teams from India are attending the meet this year. IISc Bangalore, IIT Madras, IIT Delhi, SRM Chennai and SVCE Chennai are other participants from India.
A total of 300  teams have registered to present their ideas at the iGEM Giant Jamboree that will be underway at the Hynes Convention Centre in Boston. The teams include 105 from Asia, 88 from North America, 15 from Latin America, 79 from Europe and two from Africa.

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