The Bioware team from Freiburg, an important part of the bioss cluster of excellence, has once again achieved resounding success: one gold medal and two special prizes at the iGEM competition (international Genetically Engineered Machine), the largest event for up-and-coming scientists focusing on synthetic biology. It was the turn of the research group heads, junior professor Dr. Kristian Müller and Dr. Katja Arndt, to participate in the competition with two teams, making it into the final round and showing that their Bioware and Software teams are among the six best biotech hubs in the world.
The Freiburg groups received the “Best Poster” award, and were also particularly proud of the special “Best BioBrick engineered” award that they won for the best genetic component, the iGEM’s scientific core piece. Last year, the Freiburg group took second place in the finals and received a gold medal for a system that can switch on and off processes in the cells’ interior from the outside. Three years ago, the Freiburg team was the first German team to participate in the competition organised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston.
This year’s Bioware team, 14 5th – 9th semester students supervised by three doctoral students, developed an innovative pair of “gene scissors” that facilitates and improves the cleavage and reassembly of genes. This won over the jury and the Freiburg students came out top in a field of 112 teams consisting of 1,100 students from the best universities in the world.
The new discipline of synthetic biology has huge future potential. Its initial objective is to simplify gene constituents, i.e. DNA molecules, and subsequently rearrange them into increasingly complex patterns. For the iGEM competition, students design gene sequences with a defined function. The pair of “gene scissors” designed by the Bioware team from Freiburg could potentially help accelerate the development of environmentally friendly biotechnology methods, biopharmaceuticals and biofuels. The gene sequences, i.e. the BioBricks, will be stored in a public database at the MIT.
The cleavage and fusion of genes is usually achieved using certain proteins known as restriction enzymes. Due to the increasing complexity of the task, this method is getting closer and closer to reaching its limits. The team from Freiburg developed and tested a new method to identify gene segments and cleave them with a pair of “molecular scissors”. The team produced a new enzyme that consists of a DNA cleavage domain and a recognition domain for a chemically modified piece of DNA. These segments can be programmed to recognise any gene and are inexpensive to produce. This combination allows researchers to modify genes inside and outside organisms, and is a new, groundbreaking technique in the discipline of synthetic biology as a whole. The Freiburg team successfully demonstrated the application of the method not only within bacteria cells through the cleaving of a virus genome, but also in the test tube.
The pioneering spirit of the Freiburg students goes even further. Three mathematics and biology students participated in the competition with a separate, completely new theme. The Software team from Freiburg developed SynBioWave, software that can be used by life scientists to document research results and share the process of creating the results using an internet-based PC.
SynBioWave is based on Google’s communication tool, Wave, software that claims to be a genuinely miraculous form of communication and Internet conversation tool. Wave enables real-time communication, has a playback feature to track back the whole process and enables the integration of external programmes or so-called Wave robots.
The Freiburg Software team expanded this innovative technology and programmed Wave robots that can browse biological databases and process gene and protein sequences. In addition, the three students developed a tool to enable robots to network with each other as well as publishing an interface that allows users to develop their own Bio-Wave robots.
With their open source project, the Freiburg students are supporting next level biological principles as well as classical genetic-engineering projects. Google Wave will be launched in a few months’ time. The transformation of scientific communication achieved by the Freiburg Software team involves a great deal of work and also has huge future potential.