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Bacteria killers assembled from biological parts

For the first time ever a team from Heidelberg will participate in the internationally renowned iGEM competition. A student team under the direction of Dr. Roland Eils is developing a biological machine that recognises and specifically kills pathogens or tumour cells. 84 teams from all over the world are taking part in the competition.

The iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machines competition) is an international competition in the field of synthetic biology, which has been organised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston since 2005. It has become one of the biggest international competitions in the field of science. This year, 84 student teams from around the world will participate, including three teams from Germany. It is the first time that any Germans will participate. The group of students from Heidelberg is led by Prof. Dr. Roland Eils (University of Heidelberg and German Cancer Research Centre).

Synthetic biology is a young field of science. In contrast to classical genetic engineering, the competition combines science and engineering. Just as planes are manufactured from different ready-made parts, synthetic biology uses biological parts (short gene sequences of, for example, regulatory sequences, ribosome binding sites, reporters, etc.) to combine these into new complex systems with specific functions. iGEM runs a database of biological parts (parts.mit.edu), which has expanded over the last few years to include more than 1,000 parts. These parts are available to all students participating in the competition.
The Heidelberg iGEM team with Prof. Roland Eils (front row, fourth from the left). (Photo: DKFZ)
The Heidelberg iGEM team with Prof. Roland Eils (front row, fourth from the left). (Photo: DKFZ)

The teams have spent their summer semester holidays on their projects and are now working towards a jamboree at the MIT in Boston where the results and numerous awards will be presented. The competition was originally created in order to utilise university laboratories that are vacant during the summer months, and in order to give students the opportunity to carry out independent project work early on in their studies.

The Heidelberg iGEM team consists of 15 students from the University of Heidelberg and one student from the TU Darmstadt who are studying molecular biotechnology, biology and mathematics. They are supported in their work by tutors from Roland Eils’ department (University of Heidelberg and German Cancer Research Centre). The actual work is carried out at the Bioquant, a new centre for the quantitative analysis of molecular and cellular biological systems established in 2007.

The Heidelberg team hopes to create a biological machine that will be able to recognise and specifically kill pathogens and tumour cells. The students are developing a model, an artificial system consisting of two strains of the intestinal E. coli bacteria, one ‘prey strain’ that represents the pathogens, and a ‘killer strain’. The two different strains are created by the modification of the genetic information of the bacteria.

The Heidelberg team needs to solve two major problems: firstly, the killer bacteria have to recognise their prey and be able to move towards it in a goal-oriented way. This is achieved by exploiting the E. coli bacteria’s perception and locomotor system that is naturally used to find food. Secondly, the killer bacteria need to be equipped with an efficient killing module that can be created using two different strategies, either through bacteria-specific viruses or specific toxins that are also effective against tumour cells.

Besides the practical laboratory work, some of the team members do computer simulations of the test system in order to make predictions about the behaviour of “prey” and “killer” under different conditions. These insights enable the specific planning of the laboratory experiments.

The work of this very ambitious project is already in full swing. The students have spent about three months, day and night, on the construction of their bacteria killer from the biological parts repository. Initial success has already been achieved, both as regards the computer simulation as well as in the experimental work. The team is totally determined: they will work hard to advance the project and hope to be successful in the face of fierce competition from internationally renowned scientists from Harvard, Cambridge and Tokyo.

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/press-release/bacteria-killers-assembled-from-biological-parts