This year, the 2020 iGEM synthetic biology competition is teaming up with the open collaborative platform JOGL to tackle the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals on a global roadmap toward 2030.
“iGEM has been a huge inspiration for me, and for JOGL,” says Thomas Landrain, co-founder of France’s first DIYbio lab La Paillasse in 2011, and more recently co-founder of the collaborative open science online platform Just One Giant Lab (JOGL). More precisely, it inspired him to quit academia and embrace biohacking, while pioneering the DIYbio movement in Europe almost ten years ago.
Thomas’s intimate relationship with the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation dates back to 2007, when he co-initiated the first French iGEM team to participate in the annual synthetic biology competition organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and won the award for best fundamental research project). His team competed again in 2012, and over the last few years, he has been working with the foundation to develop programs for iGEM Europe, culminating in the competition’s famous Giant Jamboree moving to Paris in 2021.
— iGEM Headquarters (@iGEM) November 4, 2019
“The competition empowers thousands of local people to solve local problems around the world by engineering biology for safe and responsible solutions,” writes the iGEM Foundation. Inaugurated with just 5 competing teams in 2004, by 2019 the iGEM competition had expanded to attract 353 teams of high school to graduate students across several disciplines in some 40 different countries.
iGEM’s communal Registry of Standard Biological Parts offers competitors more than 20,000 open source DNA parts (“BioBricks”) to be assembled into new genetically engineered systems, while the foundation continues to help integrate individuals and disseminate research from its community of more than 40,000 alumni.
For Thomas, iGEM was a pioneer in demonstrating that science could be open, accessible, inclusive and interdisciplinary—if not revolutionary. Today, JOGL and iGEM share core values and a common vision to nurture a safe space for open collaboration, pooled resources, shared information and public documentation, in which to develop science-based projects, responsibly and ethically, for a sustainable future. Where open source solutions and decentralized, distributed collaborative networks of makers, biohackers and anyone else willing to join the fight may well be the new normal in this pandemic age.
? All 2020 iGEMers are welcome to sign up on JOGL and join the @iGEM program! ? The program was launched to stimulate iGEMers to solve problems that address the UN #SustainableDevelopment Goals (#SDGs)♻️
Watch the full video ▶️ https://t.co/UW5YkHaL1z #iGEM2020 #synbio pic.twitter.com/HkGw239cqa
— JOGL – Just One Giant Lab (@JustOneGiantLab) July 10, 2020
In parallel with JOGL’s Open Covid19 Initiative, the platform’s iGEM 2020 program features iGEM projects directly tackling the challenges raised by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as drafted by the United Nations in 2015—a practical roadmap and action plan toward 2030. Accompanied by 169 concrete targets and 232 measurable indicators, all 17 SDG are tied to agriculture, food and water.
“We have so many problems to solve,” says Thomas, “and the number of people who can actually play a role, who can be part of the change, in trying to solve those problems, local or global, is not enough.”
Marc Santolini, JOGL co-founder and data research scientist, is passionate about the power of crunching numbers and designing algorithms to quantify performance and qualify teams for optimized collaboration. For the past two years, he has been building a multi-level dataset of iGEM teams and their projects—wiki documentation, history of notebook sites, who wrote what at what time, awards, finalists, performance scores, team sizes and collaborations—in order to study precisely what criteria lead a team to success, and in case of failure, what criteria lead a team to improve.
Once JOGL implements its experimental recommender system for iGEM teams, says Marc, “We’ll really be able to see what happens when we start to introduce recommendations into their projects. We’re at the intersection between fundamental research and applied research on these communities.”
This year, #iGEM2020 teams are competing for the Best #SustainableDevelopment prize by solving problems that address the UN #SDGs with #syntheticbiology ?
Watch the full video with @msantolini @DrToddOliver @WiIIWright @marcearth @iGEM
? https://t.co/oqwvmGczgp #synbio pic.twitter.com/um7fppRn7O
— JOGL – Just One Giant Lab (@JustOneGiantLab) July 16, 2020
#Combating Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR)
Omkar Mohapatra leads the iGEM team IISER Tirupati 2020 of 13 undergraduates in biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Tirupati. Their project “Coli Kaze” focuses on fighting antibiotic resistance (which has already led to widespread bacterial infection in humans) by engineering bacteria to selectively degrade sulphonamides in chicken excreta as a proof-of-concept to limit the pollution of antibiotics in the environment, while making the resulting manure safe to use as fertilizer.
“The bacteria produce antibiotic degrading proteins and die, as their cell lysate is used to degrade the sulphonamides in excreta,” Omkar summarizes. “The bacteria die by adding an inducer, which limits the release of GMO into the environment. We also degrade their DNA, so that no other bacteria can pick up their DNA and become resistant too. All these biosafety modules are integrated into our project at different levels.”
The iGEM IISER Tirupati team learned about JOGL during this year’s iGEM opening weekend and was one of the first competing teams to register on the platform on June 14. So far, another JOGL member in India has already responded to their need for help in developing a wiki for the project.
But this year’s greatest challenge, as for most teams, is access to a wetlab. So far, Coli Kaze is on track to be a Two-Phase Project, an option introduced by iGEM in 2020, so that projects can be distributed over two years. In Phase 1, teams receive a thorough evaluation of their project’s theoretical and experimental design, while in Phase 2, teams try to prove that their experiments actually work in the lab.
Coli-Kaze: Combating Antimicrobial Resistance
We have started a fundraiser for our iGEM 2020 project . Please do read about the project and show your support with kind donations.
Even the smallest of amount counts
https://t.co/fE8rxqVbN7@iGEM @EpicIgem @MicrobioEvents @HALPUNE
— iGEM IISER_Tirupati (@IIisert) June 15, 2020
Undeterred by the postponed lab work and excited at the prospect of shooting for their second gold medal, the Tirupati team never lose sight of the big picture: “Our project basically focuses on delaying the process of Antimicrobial Resistance,” says Omkar. “AMR is inevitable, it cannot be stopped. Bacteria will continue to evolve. But our research will definitely help slow it down. This will give researchers more time to come up with new ideas, newer antibiotics, newer mechanisms to kill bacteria.”
In the meantime, both JOGL and iGEM are focused on getting the balls rolling in tackling the Sustainable Development Goals, even if it means relaying work over multiple teams and several generations.
For Marc Buckley, United Nations Advocate for the SDGs, the international collaborative roadmap for 2030 is no less than a global reset: “There’s no more questioning. We need your help, your work, to make sure that we do it, because this is the future we’re going toward,” he says on a panel addressing this year’s iGEM competitors.
“We’re in a time of metamorphosis. We’re like the butterfly that’s in the cocoon. We’re at the gooey stage. And there’s no way back to the caterpillar stage. We’ve got to make it through that gooey stage to the butterfly stage, because there’s no in-between. So we’re moving forward.”