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Heidelberg students win at the iGEM competition

The Heidelberg team of 16 students from the German Cancer Research Centre and the University of Heidelberg has achieved an outstanding result at the internationally renowned iGEM competition organised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. The team won the largest number of prizes with its project “Ecolicence to Kill” - a gold medal for their scientific work plus three special prizes.

For the four months leading up to the competition, the team under the supervision of Professor Dr. Roland Eils (German Cancer Research Centre) and Dr. Victor Sourjik (Centre of Molecular Biology at the University of Heidelberg) worked on their project “Ecolicence to Kill”. Their goal was to genetically reengineer bacteria so that they were able to detect and kill specific pathogens or cancer cells.

This year, the international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition in synthetic biology, which was opened up to international researchers in 2005, brought together 84 highly competitive teams including participants from top class universities such as Harvard, the California Institute of Technology, Cambridge and Tokyo. All the teams presented their project results at the grand final on 8th/9th November at the MIT in Boston.

The team from the University of Heidelberg and the German Cancer Research Centre was outstandingly successful, winning three special prizes: Best Project Presentation, Best Scientific Poster and Best Human Practices Advance for special achievements in the dialogue with the public. In addition, the Heidelberg students were one of 16 teams to be awarded a gold medal for their scientific work.

Synthetic biology

Synthetic biology is an emerging field of science which combines findings from molecular life sciences with engineering approaches in order to modify organisms and turn them into biological machines performing novel tasks. Since July 2008, the team of 15 students from the University of Heidelberg and one student from the TU Darmstadt have been working to reengineer common E. coli intestinal bacteria into a killer-prey system. They were able to create killer strains that can specifically kill prey bacteria. The prey bacteria were also modified to release a specific attractant that is recognised by the killer bacteria. This artificial killer-prey system could be used as a basis for developing medical applications which use killer bacteria to specifically detect and eliminate pathogens or even cancer cells. The first positive results have already been achieved with tumour cells.

Exemplary public relations work

The judges paid particular attention to the dialogue with the public. In order to combat reservations about synthetic biology and genetic engineering, the students undertook a number of activities such as surveys and information events in the old town centre of Heidelberg. In addition, the team gave a practical presentation of the project to a school class. These efforts were rewarded with the Human Practices prize. The public relations work of the Heidelberg team was praised as a model for all future iGEM projects.
The team’s results and a presentation of the numerous sponsors who made participation in the competition possible can be found at https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de2008.igem.org/Team:Heidelberg.

Source: DKFZ press release - 11 November 2008 (EJ,P)
Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/press-release/heidelberg-students-win-at-the-igem-competition